What did I like about the Carolina Panthers the most on Sunday?
On their final drive, nursing a two-point lead, the Panthers threw the ball twice with the game in the balance.
Both throws were completed. Both went to Kelvin Benjamin. And both were huge, going for big first downs that allowed Carolina to burn all but the final 23 seconds.
It was close to the exact opposite of the last home game Carolina played, which is fitting because that was a 19-17 loss to Atlanta and this was a 19-17 win vs. Tampa Bay.
Against Atlanta, Carolina got within field-goal range and then shut it down. Three runs netted 4 yards, Graham Gano missed a field goal from 46 yards and the Panthers had blown a game that, if they had won, would have put them in first place in the NFC South right now. I hated the strategy, because I still believe that even if Gano had made the kick that Atlanta had plenty of time (1:22 was left on the clock) to score again.
This time, Carolina gambled. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula had Derek Anderson throw the ball on first down with 3:11 left to Benjamin, who caught it for 12 yards. Two plays later, Anderson went to Benjamin again for 10.
Only then did Carolina run three times straight, but at that point I would have done exactly that, too. The running plays used up all Tampa Bay’s timeouts and nearly all of the time.
The Buccaneers were stuck at their own 10 with 23 seconds left and no timeouts at the end, and a Luke Kuechly interception quickly ended that desperation drive.
In other words, the Panthers managed the clock in an end-of-game situation far better this time around – and they did it by going back to “Riverboat Ron” instead of “Reluctant Ron.” Hopefully that lesson sticks.
• Olivia Harbin, a 12-year-old sixth-grader at East Lincoln Middle School, did a great job on the national anthem.
• Charles Johnson is really playing well for Carolina and was in the Bucs’ backfield a number of times Sunday.
• Jonathan Stewart fumbled twice Sunday, and both were crucial. Stewart lost one inside the Tampa Bay 10, which cost Carolina at least three points, and nearly lost another on the Panthers’ final drive that could have lost the game. Stewart generally is not a fumbler, however. Sunday’s was Stewart’s first lost fumble since 2010.
• There’s quite a race going on to lead the Panthers in reception yardage this year. After 14 games, Greg Olsen has 960 yards and Benjamin 952.