1. Cam Newton’s third-down scramble
The score: Scoreless, first quarter, 7:35 to play.
The situation: With the Panthers driving on their first possession of the game, Cam Newton is sacked on first down for a loss of 12. A second-down pass to Steve Smith sets up third and 12.
The play: Newton, forced to scramble left by pressure, turns upfield and gains 16 yards for a first down at the Tampa Bay 19. Four plays later, Newton found Greg Olsen for a 1-yard touchdown pass.
Why it mattered: The Panthers won the toss for the fifth straight game, and for the fifth straight time deferred their choice to the second half and started on defense. After forcing a three-and-out, Carolina drove 70 yards in 15 plays for an early 7-0 lead.
2. Ted Ginn’s drop
The score: Panthers lead 14-3.
The situation: With 9:53 to play in the second quarter, and after Ted Ginn’s fumble on a Buccaneers punt is ruled down by contact, the Panthers have the ball at their 27, first down.
The play: Newton throws a perfect strike to Ginn, in stride and behind the defense, down the right sideline, and Ginn drops it.
Why it mattered: Instead of a 73-yard touchdown and an early 21-3 lead, the Panthers go three-and-out. and the Bucs drove 43 yards in 10 plays for a second Rian Lindell field goal, cutting the Carolina lead to 14-6 and keeping Tampa Bay in the game.
3. Rivera being Rivera
The score: Panthers leading 21-6.
The situation: With 8:33 to play in the third quarter, Riverboat Ron Rivera and the Panthers faced fourth and 1 at the Tampa Bay 28.
The play: The Panthers, as has been their custom of late, go for it, and hand the ball to Mike Tolbert off right tackle. Despite a hit by the Bucs’ Mark Barron short of the first down, second effort gives Carolina the first down.
Why it mattered: Cam Newton’s 6-yard touchdown run four plays later gave the Panthers a 21-6 lead and a little breathing room.
4. The muffed punt
The score: Panthers leading 21-6, third quarter.
The situation: The Panthers are forced to punt after a three-and-out that includes a sack of Newton.
The play: Bucs return man Eric Page muffs the punt, and Colin Jones recovers for the Panthers at the Tampa Bay 29 with 2:08 to play in the third quarter.
Why it mattered: The turnover set up a 3-yard Newton touchdown pass to Tolbert four plays later, and the Panthers took a 28-6 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter.
5. Bucs’ last gasp
The score: Panthers leading 28-6, fourth quarter.
The situation: The Bucs, needing three scores, go for it on fourth down from their 16 with 7:57 to go.
The play: Mike Glennon’s pass is almost intercepted by Panthers safety Robert Lester, bringing down a chorus of boos, and the ball goes over on downs to the Panthers. The Panthers can’t get a first down, but Graham Gano’s field goal makes it 31-6.
Why it mattered: The game was probably already decided, but the field goal made it a four-score game and removed all doubt the Panthers would be above .500 for the first time since before Barack Obama was inaugurated for his first term as president.