TAMPA — It wasn't perfect.
There were a couple of coverage breakdowns, early protection issues and a long punt return allowed.
But for a Panthers' team searching for late-season momentum, it was pretty close.
Rookie quarterback Cam Newton set an NFL record for rushing touchdowns, the defense shut down Tampa Bay's running game and the Panthers took an early lead and held it.
The result was a 38-19 win that was the most complete game under first-year coach Ron Rivera.
The Panthers (4-8) had no turnovers, a season-low two penalties and gave up a season-low 78 rushing yards to win their second game in a row for the first time in two years.
Carolina had not won consecutive games since ending the 2009 season on a three-game winning streak. It was the first time the Panthers claimed back-to-back road wins since beating Tampa Bay and Arizona earlier in 2009.
The 38 points were the most since a 41-9 win against the New York Giants on Dec. 27, 2009.
I think that's how Rivera wants our team to look, offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. It was a pretty good game. Defense did a nice job. No turnovers and scored a lot of points on offense. It was nice because there never really a sense of panic or a letdown. It was a pretty consistent game.
Newton had three 1-yard touchdown runs to increase his season total to 13, breaking Steve Grogan's 35-year-old record among quarterbacks. Newton, who accounted for 258 total yards and caught his first career pass, is nearing Eric Dickerson's rookie record of 18 rushing touchdowns.
You get the ball in your best playmaker's hands, Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams said. And fortunately for us, our playmaker touches the ball every play.
Tampa Bay (4-8), which has lost six in a row and seven of its past eight games, played without starting quarterback Josh Freeman, who injured his throwing shoulder on the final play against Tennessee the previous week.
With third-year quarterback Josh Johnson making his first start since 2009, the Panthers crowded the line of scrimmage to stop tailback LeGarrette Blount and force Johnson to make plays in the passing game.
The Panthers, near the bottom of the league in rushing defense, held Blount to 19 yards on 11 carries after the former Oregon back ran for 91 yards last November in the teams' last meeting. Blount's longest gain Sunday went for 6 yards.
LeGarrette Blount had been busting long runs, linebacker James Anderson said. So we said we had to stack the box and try to slow him down, and play defense after that.
Rivera said the Panthers have been stressing their run defense.
If we can those types of things as a defense and make it harder for teams to run it, we can help ourselves out a lot, Rivera said. So that's something we have to do.
Meanwhile, the Panthers struck quickly with touchdowns on their first two drives against the league's 31st-ranked defense, which was missing defensive end Michael Bennett and cornerback Aqib Talib, who left the game in the first quarter after aggravating a hamstring injury.
Jonathan Stewart had two carries for 50 yards to fuel the first drive, while wideout Legedu Naanee's 27-yard, throwback pass to Newton set up the second touchdown.
The Panthers continued to pile up the yards (385) and first downs (26) to pull away from a team that has been one of the NFL's biggest disappointments.
But after their own struggles the past two seasons, the Panthers felt little sympathy for Tampa Bay.
That's tough on them, veteran receiver Steve Smith said. They've got to figure it out like we had to figure it out.
Johnson, who is 0-5 as a starter, moved the Buccaneers inside the Panthers' 33-yard line on their last four possessions of the first half. But each time the Panthers held, forcing four field goals from former North Carolina kicker Connor Barth.
We got in the red zone five or six times repeatedly, and we came away with field goals, field goals, field goals, Johnson said. We knew we had to score some points. We've seen (Carolina's) offense on film. We watched them play and they've been scoring. Field goals weren't going to get it.
In addition to Newton's three scores, Stewart added a 1-yard touchdown dive, while Naanee scored his first touchdown as a Panthers with a 19-yard reception on a laser from Newton.
Naanee said it was important to extend drives, keep the defense off the field and finally bury an opponent.
It's something we've been in position to do throughout the year. And one reason or another, we didn't do it, Naanee said. (This) was finally the game where we were consistent throughout, gave (the defense) breaks and let them recharge and come back out on the field and put stops up.
After two wins during their three-game road swing, Rivera believes the Panthers can finish strong.
I think we can have a run. We're really in the thick of it now. We've got some real good football teams coming up with Atlanta, Houston and then come back with Tampa again, Rivera said.
I still think Tampa's one of the real good football teams in this division because they've got a franchise quarterback. We didn't face him today. But he should be back for us (on Dec. 24). We do expect to build on this. We do expect to gain momentum going forward.