Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis hardly paused when the question came.
What happened when he was penalized 15 yards for a hit he made on Tampa Bay receiver Tiquan Underwood in the final minute of regulation? The Panthers were clinging to a 21-13 lead when Davis was flagged for unnecessary roughness after he hit Underwood high on an 18-yard reception.
The completion and the penalty moved the Bucs to the Carolina 47 and fueled the game-tying drive in what would be a 27-21 overtime victory for Tampa Bay.
“Listen to me, man,” Davis told reporters. “It’s ridiculous how they wait and see if a guy is going to lay down on the field before they make a call. It don’t make no sense.
“You can’t play defense any more because they’re looking around to see if a guy is going to lay down on the field. Clearly you can see I went in low, (my) shoulder tried to get under his shoulder then he laid down on the field and they called a penalty. It’s ridiculous. It don’t make no sense.”
It was a critical call in another late collapse by the Panthers, who led by 11 points with fewer than five minutes remaining.
On a day when Davis led the Panthers with 16 tackles and forced a critical goal-line fumble by Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin, the penalty added to the frustration. Davis was also called for a roughness penalty two weeks ago in the Panthers’ victory against the Washington Redskins for a hit he made on quarterback Robert Griffin III in a late-game touchdown drive.
The call Sunday gave the Bucs 15 more yards and what amounted to an extended timeout while the officials sorted out the play. The Bucs were out of timeouts on their final drive in regulation.
“It’s a tough call,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “I understand that it’s about safety. It’s tough because Thomas just came and made a football play. It’s hard because at that point are we supposed to miss him and let him catch the ball clean?
“The receiver is going down, Thomas is coming across. How are we supposed to make plays on that? Thomas didn’t hit him helmet to helmet. That much I’ll say. The referee made a judgment call. We have to live with it.”
That was the difficult part for Davis, who has made history this season as the first NFL player to return to action after three anterior cruciate ligament repairs on the same knee. On a defense that held the Bucs to 243 yards before two 80-yard drives at the end of regulation and in overtime, Davis was the centerpiece.
The Panthers led 14-10 early in the fourth quarter when Davis stopped a potential go-ahead touchdown by the Bucs.
Facing fourth-and-1 from the Panthers’ 2, the Bucs handed the ball to Martin up the middle. Davis launched himself into Martin, digging a shoulder in and forcing the football loose.
Luke Kuechly fell on it in the end zone for the Panthers and, after a video review, officials ruled it a touchback, allowing the Panthers to maintain their lead.
“Thomas made a great stick on the running back,” Kuechly said. “He popped it out and I was kind of at the right spot at the right time.”
It was an enormous play.
“We fought. We fought,” Davis said. “Fourth-and-1 situation. We bowed up defensively. We gave ourselves an opportunity.
“We just didn’t finish this game. It’s tough. It’s becoming too repetitive. We’re saying the same stuff.”
The Tampa Bay game was Davis’s ninth this season. That equals the number of games he played from 2008 through 2011, when he was dealing with the three knee injuries.
His play has been a major factor in the improved performance by the defense this season. But it wasn’t good enough Sunday.
“Defensively, we’ve been playing well all season,” Davis said. “We want the game to be the way that it was. Put the game in our hands, allow us to finish it.
“We didn’t get it done today, flat out.”
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