With the NFC South title on the line, the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers both came out swinging. Sam Darnold had a day, with three touchdown passes for the first time as a Panther. Unfortunately, his three turnovers (one pick, two fumbles) and the defense's inability to contain Mike Evans wrote the final chapter of this game. The Carolina Panthers are now officially eliminated from play contention and have only the draft left to look forward to.
The Panthers started the game with the ball and immediately flipped the script they had shown for the last four games. Darnold threw for the first two plays, completing both passes for a total of 37 yards and a pair of first downs. That sparked a six play, 75-yard touchdown drive that saw Darnold go 4/4 for 60 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown pass to Tommy Tremble.
On the following possession, Chris Godwin caught a 26-yard pass to move the Bucs onto Carolina's side of the field on third and long. Sam Frankling came up while Godwin was trying to gain extra yards after the catch and punched the ball out. Xavier Woods recovered for the Panthers.
The Panthers and Bucs traded three quick punts after the fumble. The Bucs punt was forced by a Yetur Gross-Matos sack on 3rd and 6. Both Panthers possessions were three-and-outs.
The Bucs put together one of the longest drives of the game with a 15-play effort that resulted in a missed 53-yard field goal. The Panthers combined a lot of good plays with a fair amount of luck to keep their 7-0 lead halfway through the second quarter.
The Panthers followed with an entertaining catch and fumble out of bounds by Terrace Marshall Jr that converted a Panthers first down. A fourth-and-3 conversion a few plays later set up a 24-yard touchdown pass to DJ Moore to put the Panthers up 14-0.
The Bucs responded late in the second quarter with a 63-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans over Keith Taylor. That pulled them with a touchdown, 14-7 with the Panthers still on top.
The Panthers took the ball back with 2:10 left on the clock in the first half. The Bucs took a timeout with :04 left before the two minute warning. Darnold fumbled the snap on the next play and the Bucs recovered. That was Darnold's first turnover on the season. It was not to be his last.
Carolina's defense held the Bucs to a field goal attempt on 4th & 1 from the 4. Ryan Succop made the field goal to make it a four point game. Panthers still led 14-10.
Raheem Blackshear returned the following kickoff to the 39 yard line, giving the Panthers great field position with 1:03 and a timeout left in the first half. Darnold was sacked on first and 10 back to the 30 yard line. That was effectively it, as the Panthers entered halftime up 14-10, but with momentum firmly on the Bucs side.
The Panthers opened the second half by forcing a Bucs punt. They proceeded to drive the ball smoothly down the field until a Darnold threw a deep interception to Sean Murphy-Bunting, who was downed at the Tampa Bay two yard line. That pass, if completed, would have been 41-yard touchdown to tight end Stephen Sullivan. It was, to be generous, not Darnold's best throw.
It took two plays from the two yard line for the Bucs to cross the Tampa 30. Two more plays saw them across the 50. The Panthers defense finally tightened up at the goal line, forcing another field goal attempt on fourth & goal after another 15-play drive. The field goal was blocked by Gross-Matos, preserving the Panthers 14-10 lead.
The Panthers took over at their own nine yard line. Two hard runs by D'Onta Foreman picked up a quick first down. That set up a 47-yard bomb from Darnold to Moore.
The Darnold to Moore connection plus a few penalties got the Panthers inside the Red Zone as the clock expired on the third quarter. Carolina finished the drive with a 19-yard touchdown pass to Shi Smith on 3rd and 7 from the 19. They led 21-10 to start the fourth quarter.
Tom Brady connected with Mike Evans over CJ Henderson on the next drive for a 57-yard touchdown. The two point conversion attempt failed, leaving the Bucs trailing 21-16 with 13:49 left in the game.
The Panthers next possession was derailed by a delay of game penalty that moved a third and five to a third and ten. Carolina punted after a Darnold incompletion and pinned the Bucs at their own 8 with 9:53 left in the game.
Tampa Bay took about three minutes to score another touchdown. Tom Brady was 7/7 for 90 yards, including the final, 30 yard touchdown pass to Evans. The two point conversion was good, giving the Bucs their first touchdown off of a sustained drive and their first lead of the day as the led the Panthers 24-21.
The Panthers responded with a three-and-out, punting back to the Bucs with 5:45 left on the clock.
The defense, who could not stop the Brady-Evans connection, forced a punt off of a critical third down sack. Darnold and the Panthers offense took over at the 13 yard line after a questionable holding call backed them up.
Darnold was hit on first and 10 and fumbled the ball. Vita Vea recovered the ball to give the Bucs first and goal from the six. Leonard Fournette appeared to put the ball in the end zone on the next play. An unecessarily long review put him down at the one. Brady scored on a QB sneak on second and goal, effectively ending the Panthers season and putting the Bucs up 30-21 (missed extra point) with 1:58 left in the game.
Darnold showed his wheels in the Panthers two minute offense, picking up yards and extending plays in Cam Newton's finest tradition. Unfortunately, mutltiple tipped balls in the fourth quarter also reminded us of Baker Mayfield's finest traditions in Charlotte.
Carolina drove to the Tampa Bay 31 and elected to kick a 49-yard field goal on second and fifteen with 0:59 on the clock (after taking a delay of game penalty). The logic here was to preserve time for a second scoring drive after an onside kick attempt.
The Bucs recovered the onside kick attempt. Three runs bled the Panthers three timeouts and Tampa punted on fourth and five.
A hilariously bungled punt and penalty had them rekick, and the punt was downed at the 4. Second down was a 38 yard pass to Smith at the 42.
A spike and a penalty set up second and 15 at the 37 with :04 left. A lateral-filled melee ensued that advanced the ball, but fell short of the end zone.
Darnold's turnovers are a big story today, but the absence of Jaycee Horn and Donte Jackson are the real story. Evans had touchdown receptions of 57, 63, and 30-yards. That was their entire offense and the Panthers would have been a playoff team with a slightly better, or healthier, secondary.