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Big Mo: How the Buccaneers pillaged the Panthers in Week 18

Let’s look at the biggest plays in swinging momentum in the Panthers dreadful 41-17 loss to close out a terrible season. 

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NFL: Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Mo series highlights the plays (or series of plays) that had the biggest impact on swinging the Panthers win probability as calculated by ESPN. In Week 18 Carolina actually looked good through the first quarter against the defending Super Bowl champs, then things took a turn for the worse.

ESPN

Here are the key plays that led to the inevitable - a blowout loss to a division rival.

First quarter 14:16 - Panthers 0, Buccaneers 0

Fluttering first down to DJ (15% to 39% Panthers win probability): Carolina received the opening kickoff but faced a three-and-out on their first possession. On third-and-7 Sam Darnold felt pressure and threw an ugly, fluttering pass that somehow hit DJ Moore in the numbers for a 20-yard gain and a first down. This conversion ignited a 14-play drive that saw the Panthers score a touchdown to take a 7-0 early lead. The early score led to a 24-point jump in Carolina’s win probability to 39%.

Second quarter 12:21 - Panthers 7, Buccaneers 0

Evans converts on fourth down (32% to 27% Panthers win probability): Carolina held a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. Early in the second quarter the Buccaneers faced fourth-and-2 from the Carolina 42. Mike Evans ran a shallow crossing route and Rashaan Melvin had a scary collision with Jermaine Carter Jr. while in coverage. Evans ended up wide open for a 14-yard gain. This play extended a drive that led to a Tampa Bay field goal to narrow the Panthers lead to 7-3.

Second quarter 4:58 - Panthers 7, Buccaneers 3

The horrible goal line quarterback sneak (54% to 36% Panthers win probability): The Panthers faced fourth-and-1 from the Tampa Bay two yard line, so they could get a first down without scoring a touchdown. Matt Rhule and interim offensive coordinator Jeff Nixon decided to run about the worst possible play: a quarterback sneak with Sam Darnold. First, Tampa Bay’s interior defensive line is a wall. Second, Cam Newton, the most devastating short yardage quarterback in NFL history, is still on the roster. Predictably, Darnold bobbled the snap, the offensive line got zero push, and the Panthers quarterback was stopped short for a turnover on downs and no points on a 12-play, 73-yard drive. Absolutely horrible coaching decisions on this play. Carolina was actually favored to win before the turnover - they had a 54% win probability - but after this fiasco momentum swung to the Bucs, never to return.

Second quarter 1:22 - Panthers 7, Buccaneers 3

Evans gets 37 on crucial third down (40% to 16% Panthers win probability): The Bucs had the ball with third-and-10 from their own eight yard line with 1:22 left before the half. If the Panthers defense could get a stop and force a punt from the end zone, perhaps the offense could tack on a field goal. But on this crucial play, Mike Evans got separation from Myles Hartsfield for a 38-yard gain. This led to a textbook two-minute drill for the Bucs that ended with a touchdown and a 10-3 halftime lead. Even though Tampa Bay only held a three-point lead, they now had an 84% win probability at the half.

Fourth quarter 10:40 - Panthers 10, Buccaneers 24

Robby’s huge touchdown (6% to 9% Panthers win probability): The Panthers faced fourth-and-4 from the Tampa Bay 19, so failure here meant game over. Sam Darnold faced immediate pressure from his right and lofted a pass deep down the left sideline for Robby Anderson. Despite being held by Sean Murphy-Bunting, Anderson came up with a ridiculous, juggling over-the-shoulder catch for a beautiful touchdown. The Panthers now just trailed by seven points with about 10 minutes left in the game.

But from here the Panthers decided to implode with a Sam Darnold fumble followed by a Darnold interception that might have been caused by a lazy route from Robby Anderson. Game over.

Big Mo MVP - CJ Henderson

With essentially all of the Panthers starting secondary missing this game, CJ Henderson was tasked with playing 100% of the team’s defensive snaps against a motivated Tom Brady. Henderson had four tackles on the day, but was largely invisible, which is exactly what you want to see from a cornerback. An invisible corner often means he’s locking up his man and the quarterback has to look elsewhere.

Per PFF, Henderson played 40 coverage snaps and was targeted seven times. Those targets yielded just 34 yards and a passer rating of 81.2. The three other Panthers defensive backs who were targeted each surrendered passer ratings over 100. Let’s hope Henderson can build on this outing and justify the 2022 third round pick the Panthers traded to land him.

What I liked

  • Myles Hartsfield sacking Tom Brady on Tampa Bay’s first play from scrimmage, throwing the Bucs off schedule and leading to a three-and-out.
  • Deonte Brown getting 29 snaps at guard. He had one offensive snap played coming into this game.
  • Sam Darnold having one of his better outings as a passer through his first three quarters and the game plan giving him short, quick passes and some nice screens. He looked decent until late in the game when he lost a fumble and threw a pick (though commentator Tony Romo put the blame on a bad route by Robby Anderson). Darnold’s not the long-term answer, but at least he’s ending the season on something of a high note.
  • Hearing the Bucs pirate ship cannon have a premature fire after Tampa Bay missed a field goal late in the game. It’s petty, I know, but I’ll take what I can get in games like these.

What I didn’t like

  • Matt Rhule taking a timeout with one second left in the first quarter. It looked like the play clock and the game clock would both go to zero at the same time, thus ending the quarter, but Rhule burned a timeout anyway. It’s just befuddling situational coaching issues like these where Rhule isn’t doing himself any favors with a fan base that’s quickly turning on him.
  • Watching Mike Evans repeatedly make some of the Panthers young secondary look completely lost in coverage.
  • Knowing the Panthers coaching staff is probably the league’s worst at making halftime adjustments. We’ve seen this team get steamrolled in the second half so many times over the past two years, and I think it’s because opposing coaches are simply better at making adjustments when compared to the Panthers staff. It’s a clear pattern at this point.

And thus ends one of the most depressing Panthers seasons in recent memory. Before the season began I predicted Carolina would go 7-10 in a rebuilding year, experience some growing pains, make progress throughout the year, then enter 2022 ready to contend for a playoff spot. (Note: In my pre-season prediction column I included a poll and 57% of CSR readers who voted said Carolina would win nine or more games this year, so this was a really rough season for those of you who came in with much higher expectations than I had).

I’ve written many times before that I was willing to endure some growing pains this year. We experienced lots of pain. We saw little growth. In fact, the team seemed to get worse as the season went along.

General manager Scott Fitterer and head coach Matt Rhule have a lot of work to do. Few Panthers fans are trusting their process. Let’s hope they prove us wrong in the months ahead.