The Carolina Panthers scored only one touchdown Sunday against a bad team. They have still only won five games all season in 14 tries.
And yet Carolina stayed firmly in a bizarre playoff race Sunday, edging Tampa Bay, 19-17, on a sunny afternoon that the Panthers speckled with four field goals and just enough good plays to stay alive. The win also capped a surreal week that began when Cam Newton was in an uptown traffic accident that sent his truck tumbling sideways across a bridge over Interstate 277.
Normally, a 5-8-1 record would have a team looking ahead to next year. Not this time.
“People can make all the jokes they want,” said Carolina wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who scored the Panthers’ lone touchdown. “We are playing meaningful football in December.”
Technically, the Panthers moved a few percentage points ahead of both New Orleans (5-8) and Atlanta (5-9) in the woeful NFC South after Sunday’s results. But New Orleans will retake the division lead if the Saints win at Chicago on Monday night.
Cotchery, along with thousands of Panthers fans, will watch that game closely. “I’ll be rooting hard for the Bears,” Cotchery said. “And I hope it’s really cold.”
Panther backup quarterback Derek Anderson threw for 277 yards Sunday, mostly to Greg Olsen (110) and Kelvin Benjamin (104). Anderson also did a Cam Newton-style salute after running for a first down in tribute to his friend. Newton missed this game due to a back injury he suffered in Tuesday’s car crash.
The Panthers could not push the ball across the goal line except once, and that came after the Panthers defense forced a turnover on a sack and gave the ball to the offense at the Tampa Bay 4.
The Panthers got the ball into Tampa Bay territory on 11 out of 11 possessions Sunday, but only managed four field goals besides Cotchery’s two-yard TD on a slant pass from Anderson. Carolina never could come up with a really big play – the Panthers’ longest gain was a modest 21 yards.
But the Carolina defense forced three second-half turnovers and Tampa Bay (2-12) also got a bad break when Anderson’s would-be interception in the fourth quarter was negated by a roughing-the-passer penalty.
Carolina had played far better in its 41-10 demolition of New Orleans the week before. This was an ugly win, but the Panthers will take that over a pretty loss any day.
“It was a grind,” Carolina cornerback Josh Norman said. “We just made one to two plays more than they did. Earlier in the year, other teams were doing that to us.”
Looking ahead to Cleveland
Anderson is now 2-0 as a starter this season, with both wins coming against Tampa Bay. Anderson may start again vs. Cleveland on Sunday, but only if Newton can’t come back. Newton was inactive Sunday, but was on the sideline in sweats trying to cheer on his teammates and occasionally making suggestions for play calls. He also went out for the pregame coin toss along with the Panthers’ other team captains.
“I could tell he was frustrated sometimes,” Anderson said of Newton. “He would come over and say, ‘Hey, they’re doing this, they’re doing that.’ ”
The Panthers’ home game against Cleveland may include the added bonus of Johnny “Football” Manziel, the overhyped Browns rookie who played terribly in the Browns’ 30-0 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday. Carolina will likely need to beat both the Browns at home and finish the season with a road win vs. Atlanta on Dec. 28 to make the playoffs for the second straight season. Even that will not be enough if New Orleans wins its final three games.
In its 20-year history, Carolina has never made the playoffs two times in a row. The Panthers also have never had two winning seasons in a row, and that streak will not end.
But someone is going to win the NFC South, either with an 8-8 record or worse. It may as well be the Panthers, said the players in Carolina’s locker room.
“We’re not going to apologize for where we are,” Olsen said.
“Everyone’s trying to make a mockery of our records in the division,” Cotchery said. “But at the end of the day, we have an opportunity to make the playoffs. And we’re excited about that.”