Panthers Clinch Playoffs With Christmas Eve Win

Story: Jim Morrison

Videos: Lee Kuveikis

UPTOWN CHARLOTTE –  Quarterback Cam Newton’s two-yard touchdown run with 35 seconds remaining capped a 10-play 59-yard drive to lift the Carolina Panthers to a 22-19 come-from-behind victory over the upset-minded Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11) and clinch a spot in the NFC playoffs.

Carolina (11-4), which trailed most of the second-half, took over for its game-winning drive with three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Newton, who completed 16-of-25 passes for 160 yards and one interception for the game, connected on four-of-seven throws for 52 yards in the final three minutes before scoring on a what could have been a disastrous play. Newton fumbled the snap from the shotgun, alertly picked it up and then raced across the goal line for the go-ahead score. Newton ran for 52 yards on 14 carries on the afternoon.

With the victory, the Panthers can still clinch the NFC South championship with a win at Atlanta in Week 17 coupled with a New Orleans loss at Tampa Bay.

“It was an ugly win,” said Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short, whose sack of Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston on the final drive forced a fumble that Julius Peppers recovered to seal the game. “We knew we needed to take of business. At the end of the day we got the job done. We’re in the playoffs, another step where we’re trying to get to.”

Winston completed 21-of-27 passes for 367 yards and a touchdown but was sacked six times and fumbled three times.

Short and defensive end Wes Horton finished with 1.5 sacks apiece to lead the Panthers defensive charge. Peppers and Daryl Worley each contributed one sack for Carolina while Mario Addison and Star Lotulelei shared a half-sack.

“Those guys (defensive line) have been doing it all year,” said Panthers Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly about the performance of the Carolina defensive line. “I don’t know if they get enough credit. Pep (Julius Peppers) and Mario (Addison) had another one (sack). I think KK had a big one. They said we had six (sacks) but I’m not sure if that’s right. Those guys played so well and so hard and make our job on the back easy. Anytime you get pressure like that and get a guy off their spot, it makes our job easy and I’m glad there is a big group of our guys that play well.”

Carolina’s only touchdown in the first three quarters came on a 103-yard kickoff return by Damiere Byrd.

Tampa Bay’s defense held Carolina to just 78 total yards offense in the first half — the fewest in an opening half since Newton took over as the Panthers starting QB in 2012. Carolina finished the opening quarter with just seven yards of offense, the Panthers fewest yards in a 1st quarter since gaining five total yards in a 38-17 Week 7 loss to the Packers in 2014.

“I think what it (winning a game they didn’t play their best) can do is make us realize that we have to be at our best, especially this time of the year going forward,” said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. “We have a big game coming up next Sunday. Again, my understanding is New Orleans won so I’m not sure what that means. All I know is we need to go into Atlanta and play a good Atlanta team.”

THE SERIES

·         Carolina improves to 22-13 all-time against Tampa Bay. The Panthers swept the season series with the Buccaneers and are 3-2 against the NFC South.

·         The Panthers clinched the organization’s eighth playoff appearance. Carolina has been to the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, tying for the most in the NFC over that span.

·         Carolina finishes the regular season with a 6-2 home record. The Panthers made the playoffs in every season when finishing with six or more home wins.

 

LATE-GAME HEROICS

·         Cam Newton delivered a game-winning drive for the second time in three weeks and third time this season. Newton now has 15 career game-winning drives.

·         Newton scored the game-winning touchdown on a two-yard run with 35 seconds remaining. It was Newton’s 54th career rushing touchdown and sixth rushing touchdown this season.

·         The Panthers won a game after trailing at the start of the fourth quarter for the first time since a victory at Seattle (10/18/15).

·         The Panthers are now 7-1 this season in games decided by seven or fewer points.

 

NEWTON ENTERS RARIFIED AIR

·         Cam Newton rushed for a team-high 52 yards on 14 carries with one touchdown. It marked the eighth game this season that Newton has rushed for over 52 yards, tying his career high.

·         Newton passed Steve Young (4,239) and moved into third place in career rushing yards by an NFL quarterback. He now has 4,261 career rushing yards and trails only Randall Cunningham (4,928) and Michael Vick (6,109).

·         Newton surpassed 3,000 passing yards this season (3,122) and now has at least 3,000 passing yards in each of his first seven seasons. Only Peyton Manning and Andy Dalton have achieved the same feat in NFL history.

 

OH, SO SPECIAL

·         Carolina’s special teams were big as the Panthers scored a touchdown on a kickoff return and used a fake punt attempt to eventually score three points.

·         Damiere Byrd returned a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown with 2:43 left in the second quarter. The play set a new franchise record for longest kickoff return, besting Kealoha Pilares’ 101-yard return against Detroit (11/20/11). That return also marked the last time that Carolina had returned a kickoff for a touchdown. The return tied for the longest kickoff return in the NFL this season.

·         This season, Carolina and Baltimore are the only teams in the NFL with a punt return and kickoff return for a touchdown. The last time that happened for Carolina was in 2003 when Steve Smith returned a punt and Rod Smart returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

 

GETTING TO WINSTON

·         The Panthers sacked Jameis Winston six times, including a strip-sack on Tampa Bay’s final drive to seal the win. Six sacks tie for the Panthers’ season high. Carolina has had three games with six sacks this year, the highest number in the NFL.

·         Wes Horton had 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He has a team-best five forced fumbles since Week 15 of 2016.

·         Kawann Short had 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He has 24.5 sacks over the last three seasons, ranking third among NFL defensive tackles.

·         Julius Peppers recovered two fumbles and now has 20 career fumble recoveries. He is now tied for second all-time in fumble recoveries in NFL history.

 

McCAFFREY SECURES ROOKIE RECEPTION RECORD

·         Christian McCaffrey made two receptions for 19 receiving yards. He now has 75 receptions this season a new franchise record for receptions by a rookie. His 611 receiving yards rank third in franchise history among rookies.

·         McCaffrey already holds single-season franchise records for receptions by a running back, receiving yards by a running back and receiving touchdowns by a running back.

 

TAKEAWAY STREAK

·         The Panthers have secured a takeaway in eight consecutive games, dating back to the first meeting with Tampa Bay on Oct. 29.

·         Over that stretch, Carolina has 17 takeaways, a +11 turnover differential, and 59 points off turnovers, all of which rank second in the NFL.

·         This season, Carolina is now 9-1 when positive or even in turnover differential.