Bucs Play Big, Come Up Short
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 25 December 2017

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers repeatedly broke off big chunks of yardage on Sunday against the NFL's fifth-ranked defense. It was the little gains that eluded them, however, as did the potential upset win in Charlotte as a two-yard Cam Newton run with 35 seconds left gave the Carolina Panthers a 22-19 win at Bank of America Stadium.

Patrick Murray made four field goals for the Buccaneers but missed his fifth, a 51-yarder with three minutes left. The Panthers took over at their own 41 and drove 59-yards for the game-winning touchdown, a two-yard keeper by Newton after he initially fumbled the shotgun snap but then picked it off the turf. Prior to that play, the Panthers barely converted a fourth-and-one on a Jonathan Stewart run after the Bucs had given them two critical yards with a neutral-zone infraction by DT Chris Baker.

The Buccaneers had one last shot with 35 seconds left but DT Kawann Short sacked Winston and forced a fumble on the first play of the drive, with Carolina recovering to seal the victory.

Jameis Winston was extremely sharp for the second straight week, completing 21 of 27 passes for 367 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, finishing with a 131.1 passer rating. Facing a Carolina defense that had been allowing 307.9 yards per game and a Newton-led offense that had led the league in scoring since Week 10, Tampa Bay managed a big edge in total yards, 392-255 However, the Bucs were only able to score one touchdown on six trips inside the 20, struggles that led to the tenuous lead that the defense couldn't hold in the final minutes. Winston also lost two fumbles in the first half, both of them leading to Carolina field goal drives.

The Bucs lost by three points or less for the fifth time in 2017. This one was a tough one to swallow for Tampa Bay's defense, which held the Panthers to 4.3 yards per play and a 31% conversion rate on third down. Newton only threw for 160 yards and rarely hit anything downfield, until a 23-yarder WR Brenton Bersin that jump-started the game-winning drive.

"That's all it is, that's all it comes down to just finish," said LB Lavonte David, who led the team with 11 tackles. "Just finish the football game. Mistakes hurt us that last drive but we've got to do a better job of finishing.

"Everybody was just doing their jobs. Everybody just stuck with it and kept doing their jobs, tackling well, everybody doing their assignments, playing tight coverage and that gave us a chance to keep us in the game. We got the one takeaway, we should have had more, but we just came up short. All you can ask for is everybody to go out there and play hard, and that's what we did."

The Buccaneers' offense had its best day of the season in terms of generating big plays downfield. Tampa Bay registered five plays of 30 or more yards, their most since Week Three, including a 70-yard catch and run by WR Chris Godwin. That big play got the Bucs in the red zone, as did a leaping 36-yarder by Adam Humphries near halftime, but both drives ended in field goals. The Bucs had a season-high six trips into the red zone, including two goal-to-go situations, but only garnered 19 points off of them.

"[Winston] is a great quarterback," said Godwin, the rookie who started in place of an injured DeSean Jackson. "When we're clicking on offense, that really shows. But we've got to put together a complete game so we can get a victory. Any time you have missed opportunities, it sucks. We wouldn't have gave up the game if it wasn't as close as it was. But we'll run the tape and learn from it."

Carolina's offense didn't find the end zone until Newton's last run, but the Panthers got the only touchdown of the first half on a 130-yard kickoff return by Dameire Byrd. That was the first kickoff return touchdown allowed by Tampa Bay in more than six years. Carolina also successfully pulled off a trick play on special teams, a fake punt in the second quarter that worked due to a pass-interference penalty and led to a field goal.

Godwin tallied a career-high 98 yards on three catches, but Winston's favorite target of the night was Mike Evans, who caught six passes for 107 yards, his first 100-yard game of the season. Wide receivers Adam Humphries and Freddie Martino also surpassed 50 receiving yards and rookie Bobo Wilson turned his first career reception into an 18-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

The Buccaneers moved the ball more effectively than the Panthers in the first half, hitting the intermission with a 225-78 edge in net yards. Big plays by Godwin, Barber and Humphries contributed to four trips into the Carolina red zone, but the Bucs netted only three field goals out of those four drives, losing one on a fumble. Winston fumbled twice in the half, both leading to Carolina field goal drives, and Byrd's 103-yard kickoff return provided the game's only touchdown to that point.

Winston converted the first third down of the game on the opening drive with a 17-yard strike to Evans, but two plays later his arm was hit by Wes Horton as he was trying to throw, resulting in a fumble. Carolina's Bryan Cox recovered the loose ball and returned it to the Bucs' 33.

The Panthers turned that takeaway into three points. Newton converted a third-and-one with a keeper to the Bucs' 23, and a facemask penalty on the Bucs on the next play moved the ball to the 11. The Bucs held there, however, as good coverage on third-and-seven forced Newton to scramble up the middle and he was stopped well short of the sticks. Graham Gano came on to drill a 25-yard field goal seven minutes into the game.

The Buccaneers answered with an 11-play, 63-yard field goal, more than half of it gained on a 34-yard breakaway by Barber into Carolina territory. Barber also powered up the middle for a first down at the Carolina 26, but the drive stalled there and the Bucs settled for Murray's 31-yarder.

Tampa Bay's defense followed up with a three-and-out on Carolina's second possession, with great downfield coverage on third-and-four giving McCoy time to sack Newton for a 12-yard loss back at the 14. Adam Humphries fair caught the ensuing punt at the Bucs' 45, and a sharp 15-yard slant from Winston to Godwin got the ball back into Carolina territory as the first quarter came to an end.

The first play of the second period was a 13-yard catch by Evans to the Carolina 22. However, the Bucs came up empty when Julius Peppers recovered a Winston fumble at the 19 on a botched snap exchange. The Panthers third drive was nearly another three-and-out but a third-down incompletion in the direction of Olsen was erased by a pass-interference call. A 31-yard catch and run by wide receiver Dameire Byrd got the Panthers into the Bucs' red zone, but the defense held again and Gano hit his second field goal, a 28-yarder.

A second-down sack by Mario Addison killed the Bucs' next drive, and Bryan Anger's first punt of the day, an angling 50-yarder, pushed Carolina back to its own 30 with seven minutes left in the half. This time the Bucs completed the three-and-out and the Panthers punted back to Tampa Bay's 16 two minutes later.

Godwin got the Buccaneers into scoring range two plays later when he caught a post route over the middle, evaded two tacklers, got a key block from Adam Humphries and dashed 70 yards to the Carolina 11. However, the Bucs not only failed to advance it from there but they made things more difficult for Murray by taking a 13-yard sack back to the 23. That proved to be no problem for Murray, who drilled the field goal from 41 yards to tie it up with three minutes left in the half.

Carolina instantly took the lead back, as Byrd dashed out of the end zone with the ensuing kickoff, broke two tackles and got a convoy down the right sideline for a 103-yard touchdown return. Gholston blocked the extra point attempt to keep the score at 12-6.

The Buccaneers treated the last 2:43 of the half aggressively, calling a timeout at the 2:03 mark despite facing a third-and-seven. Winston converted that with a precise 16-yard pass to Evans over one defender and just in front of another. A facemask penalty erased a Carolina sack on the play after the two-minute warning, and the Bucs then got into a first-and-goal situation on a 36-yard catch by Humphries. It was a thrilling play, as Winston got spun around by Peppers but stayed up and got off a deep lob towards Humphries near the left sideline.

The Buc receiver managed to out-leap CB Kevon Seymour and hold on as he fell to the ground. Two runs failed to get the ball in but TE Cam Brate was held in the end zone on third down, making it third-and-goal at the three with nine seconds left. Godwin couldn't come up with a tough catch on third down and the Bucs got three more points on Murray's 21-yarder.

Carolina took the first possession of the second half over midfield but the Bucs' defense got its first takeaway of the game to end the drive. Newton hit WR Brenton Bersin deep over the middle but a hit by Chris Conte jarred the ball loose and Alexander snatched it out of midair for an interception. Alexander's 28-yard return got the ball just over midfield. The Bucs needed just three plays from there to take the lead, with Evans making a dazzling, 36-yard sideline catch and Winston scrambling out of trouble to fire an 18-yard scoring pass to Wilson.

The Panthers got two first downs on their first two plays of the ensuing drive before Kendell Beckwith broke up a third-down pass intended for Olsen. The Panthers lined up to punt from their 44 but ran a fake instead, with punter Matt Palardy lobbing a pass down the middle to tight end Ed Dickson. Safety Josh Robinson tried to break up the pass but was flagged for pass interference, making it first down for Carolina at the Bucs' 46. On third-and-one from the 37, Newton faked a handoff and ran around left end for 17 yards. Tampa Bay's defense once again held in the red zone and Gano kicked a 30-yard field goal to make it a one-point game.

Martino caught a pass down the left sideline on third-and-eight on the next drive, then broke two tackles and rumbled 39 yards to the Carolina 34. A perfect wheel route to Charles Sims converted another third down and made it first-and-goal at the nine, but a Peppers sack kept the Bucs from getting the ball in the end zone. Murray's fourth field goal, a 26-yarder restored the visitors' four-point lead on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Carolina countered with a long drive built mostly on quick passes and zone-read runs. The Panthers got all the way to the Bucs' 31 without any plays of more than eight yards, but the drive ended when Ryan Russell sacked Newton on third down back at the 39. The Panthers elected to punt with nine minutes left and were able to down it at the Bucs' seven.

The Bucs struggled for three plays from there, but the third one was nullified by offsetting penalties and Winston then threw an incredible touch pass down the middle of the field to Evans for a 30-yard gain and a new set of downs. The Bucs then overcame one false start to move the chains again and then a second one on a pass-interference penalty. With the ball just across midfield, another pass interference penalty gave the Bucs a new first down at the Carolina 36. That was the last first down of the drive and the Bucs brought Murray out to try a 51-yard field goal with three minutes left. Murray pushed it wide to the right and the Panthers got the ball at their own 41, down by four.