Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers outlast Tampa Bay 19-17, keep playoff hopes alive

Carolina Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson is a scratch golfer who plays a lot in the offseason, so it was appropriate he tuned in to the Australian Open when he couldn’t sleep Saturday night.

Anderson finally fell asleep before the end of the tournament, so he missed Greg Chalmers’ win over Adam Scott on the seventh playoff hole in Australia.

Despite not getting much rest, Anderson proved Sunday for the second time this season against Tampa Bay he’s still pretty good at his primary sport, as well.

Subbing for an injured Cam Newton, an efficient Anderson helped the Panthers overcome a shaky red-zone performance and beat the Buccaneers 19-17 win at Bank of America Stadium.

The Panthers (5-8-1) won back-to-back games for the first time since Weeks 1-2 and moved ahead of Atlanta (5-9) in the NFC South. The Falcons lost to Pittsburgh on Sunday, and New Orleans (5-8) can retake the lead if it beats Chicago on Monday night.

Anderson’s start came five days after Newton sustained two fractures in his lower back in a two-car accident in uptown Charlotte. Newton stood on the sideline wearing sweats, cheering on his teammates and offering friendly advice to Anderson between series.

Anderson, who also filled in during a Week 1 win at Tampa Bay when Newton was out with cracked ribs, completed 25 of 40 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown.

Anderson said somebody predicted before the game he’d throw four touchdowns against Tampa Bay, which fell to 2-12. Anderson wasn’t hearing any of it.

“I said, ‘I don’t care how many touchdowns I throw. If it goes across the goal line and we get points, I’m happy,’” Anderson said. “Ultimately, that’s the goal. If you win by 40 or you win by 2, it doesn’t matter.”

Anderson’s lone touchdown was a 2-yarder to wideout Jerricho Cotchery early in the third quarter, two plays after a takeaway by the Panthers’ defense gave the offense possession at Tampa Bay’s 4.

It was the only touchdown for the Panthers in four trips at or inside the Bucs’ 20. The other three ended in a Jonathan Stewart fumble at the Tampa Bay 3 and two of Graham Gano’s four field goals.

The Panthers dominated the game between the 20s. They racked up 28 first downs – tied for the second most in team history -- finished with 390 total yards and held a 15-minute edge in time of possession.

All 11 of Carolina’s drives ended in Tampa Bay territory, including four that began on the Bucs’ side of the 50.

But their failure to capitalize on scoring chances continued a season-long theme – they were 27th in the league with a red-zone touchdown percentage of 45.9 before the game – left Panthers coach Ron Rivera wanting more.

“The unfortunate part is we got down in the red zone and we didn’t put it in. We had to kick field goals and that’s disappointing,” Rivera said. “You get the ball in positions to score touchdowns, you have to. This shows you why – you allowed a team to stay in the game.”

The Panthers trailed 10-9 after a first half in which both players and coaches felt the intensity level was lacking. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and a couple of defensive linemen told the defense at halftime the group was missing the fire it played with during the Week 14 win at New Orleans.

“That was before the coaches walked in and the very first thing the coaches said – (defensive) coordinator (Sean McDermott) and Coach Rivera – was we weren’t playing with that same passion and we need to get back to it,” rookie cornerback Bené Benwikere said. “We were able to take that onto the field. We knew we were going out on the field first and were able to take care of things.”

The Panthers wasted no time setting the tone.

On the Bucs’ third snap of the second half, ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison combined on a sack, with Addison stripping quarterback Josh McCown of the ball. Defensive tackle Kawann Short recovered at the Tampa Bay 4.

“The fumble killed us,” McCown said. “That was really what tilted the game.”

This was a red-zone chance even the Panthers couldn’t mess up.

Cotchery’s first touchdown catch in Carolina gave the Panthers a 16-10 lead they never relinquished. Cotchery, a former N.C. State standout, had a career-high 10 touchdown catches last year for Pittsburgh.

The recharged defense forced the Bucs to go three-and-out on their next three possessions after the fumble by McCown, who played for the Panthers from 2008-09. The Panthers sacked McCown three times and forced him into three turnovers.

“Guys were just rushing. The secondary was making him hold the ball,” Johnson said. “He didn’t have his first target he was looking at. So anytime you can take away the first target and he has to hold the ball, it’s good.”

Meanwhile, much like he did in his first game against the Bucs, Anderson worked the middle of the field against the Tampa-2 zone coverage and its two deep safeties.

Tight end Greg Olsen was Anderson’s favorite target, catching 10 passes to match the career high he set last week at New Orleans.

Olsen (110 yards) and Kelvin Benjamin (eight catches for 104 yards) became the first two Panthers to go over 100 yards receiving in the same game since Steve Smith and Jonathan Stewart in a loss to Green Bay in 2011.

Anderson was sacked three times and was not intercepted, although he had a couple of near-picks on the Panthers’ first drive of the fourth quarter.

Rivera said Newton would be reevaluated before this week’s game against Cleveland. Anderson went to the Pro Bowl as a member of the Browns in 2007, but might not get to face his former team if Newton heals quickly.

“I know what kind of person he is, what kind of competitor he is,” Anderson said of Newton. “If he feels like he can play and go out there and win a football game for us, he’ll do that.”

That is what Anderson did Sunday, no matter how sleep-deprived he might have been.

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