By Ted Fleming
Greg Olsen summed it up the best when he said the Panthers have an “uncanny ability to lose,” after they squandered a late game lead to fall to the Buccaneers in overtime 27-21. The tight end and many of his teammates could do nothing but express their regret at letting another one get away in a season filled with one disappointment after another.
As late as six-minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Cats held an 11-point bulge, but inexplicably, the defense that had given them that edge let the Pewter Pirates start three consecutive drives from their own 20, including the final one in the extra period, to score 17 unanswered points for the victory.
The crushing blow was not the Josh Freeman to Dallas Clark 15-yard pass play that ended it but the 80-yard march down the field that sent it to overtime. Whatever air the Panthers had in their balloon was sucked out of it when the Bucs’ quarterback squeezed in a perfect 24-yard spiral to Vincent Jackson and Freeman came back on a two-point conversion, finding Jackson in the back of the end zone that knotted the game at 21 with just 0:12 left.
After the OT kickoff Tampa Bay made it look easy polishing off an eight-play drive to up their playoff hunt record to 6-4 while Carolina needs a respirator at 2-8 and easily on their way to yet another top-10, maybe even top-5 pick in the NFL Draft. Here are to gory details.
Coaching: It was hard to believe Ron Rivera’s team went the entire first quarter with only one first down – it came on the first play of the afternoon and on a pass to Steve Smith – but the game plan was to pound the rock all day and that is what happened. The numbers were not impressive at all, but what it did was take the pressure off quarterback Cam Newton, who responded with another solid game despite the outcome. For the most part, the defense was terrific until the end and special teams continue to be a thorn in the side of the Panthers. Grade C-
Quarterback: Zero interceptions again and Cam Newton did his part to position the Panthers for just their third win of the year, so you cannot fault him for the final score. The numbers were good, 16/29, 252 yards and a TD and he finished the game with a passer rating of 95.8. He remains the team’s leading rusher, accounting for 40 of the team’s 97 yards, including the longest run from scrimmage (16). Stats alone do not tell the story because Newton was playing at the top of his game. His only down moment may have come in overtime because he never had a chance to touch the ball as he watch the Bucs drive to a win. Grade A-
Offense: Committing to a ground game and sticking with it throughout is a good thing only if it works. Take away Newton’s 11 rushes for 40 yards and that leaves the rest of the team with drab numbers – 23/57 or an average of 2.5 a touch. It is looking more and more like the expensive two-headed monster of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams can’t even scare a Pop Warner team. The receiving corps did a commendable job of trying to pull the Panthers’ head out of the, ahem, turf with Brandon LaFell leading the way with 93-yards on five catches and Steve Smith 5/61. Even tight end Greg Olsen chipped in with 2/42 but was flagged a couple of times for illegal procedure. Grade C-
Defense: How can this unit go from near perfection to falling asleep in the final 10:20, including the last 4:20 in OT? The only constant for either side was the “Muscle Hamster” Doug Martin; the rookie running back pounded his way to 138-yards on 24 carries, an average of 5.8, which is above his season mark of 5.0. The defense was gassed down the stretch and the Buccaneers took advantage of the up-tempo pace that suddenly appeared after they had been slowed most of the afternoon. Josh Freeman’s QB rating was hovering around the 35 until the surge and finished at 73.5. The fourth-year pro was intercepted twice including a pick-six, but no one will be remembering three-plus quarters of great football; only what happened down the stretch. Grade D-
Special teams: Newly named Special Teams Coordinator Richard Rogers had a miserable debut: penalties, a fumble and an ill-advised fake punt that went nowhere except a turnover on downs. Captain Munnerlyn fumbled the first punt of the game and that led to a Tampa Bay touchdown (to be fair, Munnerlyn had the pick-six against Freeman so his miscue was essentially a wash). The biggest gaffe of the day was lining up for a punt early in the third with a direct snap to Haruki Nakamura that went for a negative four-yards and change of possession (again a wash because Nakamura would pick off Freeman on the very next play). Still a disaster. Grade F
Firsts: Jonathan Stewart ran for a touchdown in the second quarter, his first on the ground this season.
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Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.