CHARLOTTE — Panthers fans have become accustomed to fourth-quarter losses under Ron Rivera.
But this one was worse than all the others at least according to Rivera, whose tenure as the Panthers coach looks to be drawing to a hasty and disappointing end.
The Panthers coughed up an 11-point, fourth-quarter lead Sunday to Tampa Bay, which stormed back with a pair of 80-yard touchdown drives to steal a 27-21 win before a stunned, well-under-capacity crowd at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers (2-8) fell to 1-11 in games decided by a touchdown or less under Rivera. Five of their past six losses came after they were leading in the fourth quarter.
This one is right at the top. This is about as bad as it gets, Rivera said. We had every opportunity.
The Panthers led 21-10 after Brandon LaFells 29-yard touchdown catch with six minutes left. They led 21-13 when the Buccaneers (6-4) took over at their 20 with 1 minute, 2 seconds remaining and out of timeouts.
And they still lost.
The defeat moved veteran linebacker Thomas Davis to tears. Davis, a defensive captain, was emotional about a personal foul penalty on the Bucs game-tying drive and the constant talk of Riveras future in the wake of general manager Marty Hurneys firing last month.
People are looking and putting it on coaches. Its us, us as players. Were doing it. Weve got to go out and weve got to finish these games, Davis said. To have the game in hand like we had today and, as players, to not be able to go out and finish it, just given everything thats going on, its extremely tough.
Charles Johnson, the other defensive captain, did not talk to reporters after the game. But on his Twitter feed, Johnson posted: Embarrassed to be a part of that last drive! Some people study and work harder than others and they get expose(d) in the game.
Davis shoulder-leading hit to receiver Tiquan Underwoods head tacked 15 yards on to Underwoods 18-yard gain, moving the Bucs into Carolina territory. After completing a 17-yard throw to Vincent Jackson, quarterback Josh Freeman spiked the ball, stopping the clock with 20 seconds left with the Bucs at the Panthers 24.
On the next play, Freeman again went to Jackson, who made a great catch in the back of the end zone to get the Bucs to 21-19 with 12 seconds left.
Jackson made the grab despite tight coverage from middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who, according to Rivera, could not have been in better position.
But Kuechly said he should have made the play.
I need to get my hand up there quicker. When his eyes flash, youve got to get your hand in there, Kuechly said. They threw a great ball. They got a good catch. ... He made a great play. But in order to win games, youve got to make plays. And I didnt make the play on the ball.
After Rivera called timeout before the Bucs two-point conversion, Freeman threw a slant route to Jackson, who beat safety Sherrod Martin to tie the game.
The Panthers lost the overtime coin toss and are now a mind-blowing 0-11 on coin flips this season. The Bucs took over at their 20, and went down the field against a demoralized defense.
Rookie running back Doug Martin ran for 48 yards on the final drive and finished with 138 rushing yards.
On first-and-10 from the 15, Freeman went back to the air. Tight end Dallas Clark ran into the flat, then broke down the sideline. Linebacker James Anderson left Clark alone in the end zone for the game-winning catch.
It was a little wheel route, the one where the linebacker swears when you head upfield, Clark said.
Despite the defensive implosion, Rivera was upset the offense didnt put the game away on its last possession. After throwing for two first downs, the Panthers turned conservative with three minutes left and the Bucs out of timeouts.
From the Carolina 42, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski called three consecutive run plays against the NFLs best rushing defense. Jonathan Stewart was stopped for no gain, quarterback Cam Newton lost 2 yards, then came up short with an 11-yard keeper on third-and-12.
Brad Nortman launched a punt into the end zone to set up the Bucs final possession at the 20.