After a pair of last-minute, come-from-behind wins against New England and Miami, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton didn’t have to sweat out Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay.
Newton was on the bench for the Panthers’ final offensive series in their 27-6 victory, and showed up to his post-game press conference sporting a suit, bowtie and white-and-black patterned shoes.
“It was great to be a part of this type of win,” Newton said. “But we all know that all roads are leading to New Orleans.”
Sunday’s dispatching of the Buccaneers set the Panthers (9-3) up for a home-and-home series with the Saints to decide the NFC South. Carolina travels to New Orleans, which is 9-2 entering Monday’s game at Seattle, next week for the first of two meetings with the Saints in a 15-day span.
But to keep pace with the Saints, the Panthers first had to take care of Tampa Bay (3-9), which had won three in a row behind rookie quarterback Mike Glennon after an 0-8 start.
The Panthers sacked Glennon five times and forced him into two turnovers during a workmanlike win at Bank of America Stadium.
Carolina set a franchise record with its eighth consecutive regular-season victory. The Panthers had been tied with the 1996 team for the longest regular-season winning streak.
“It’s awesome,” veteran left tackle Jordan Gross said. “I’ve been a part of a few winning seasons and some good teams, but winning eight in a row is tough. Especially now. As the wins pile up, you become the team other teams want to beat to put a notch in their belt. ... It was a good win going into a huge game.”
The Panthers came out listless at Miami, needing a second-half rally to win 20-16.
But there was no letdown against the Bucs. The Panthers had more than a 2-to-1 edge in total yardage, racking up 426 yards while holding Tampa Bay to 206. The Panthers swept the season series with the Bucs by a combined score of 58-19.
“They beat us physically, mentally, every facet of the game,” Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “They just dominated us.”
While the Panthers pressured Glennon, Newton had plenty of time to throw.
Newton threw for 263 yards and accounted for three touchdowns without being sacked. It was the fourth time Newton made it through a game without being sacked; the last time it happened was in a win at Washington last November.
Newton led the Panthers in rushing for a third consecutive game with five carries for 68 yards – with 56 coming on a first-half scramble that set up a touchdown.
But Newton was quick to direct praise to the defense, which allowed no points in the second half for the fourth time in the past five games.
Glennon, the former N.C. State quarterback, came in having thrown one interception over his past six games. But Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the defense confused Glennon by mixing their coverages.
“We disguised coverages very well so it put a little bit of doubt in the quarterback’s mind,” Rivera said. “He didn’t have the opportunity to release the ball quickly because I’m not sure that he was sure what our coverages were.”
Glennon had trouble keeping a grip on the ball. He lost the handle trying to throw after the Bucs had driven inside the Panthers’ 5 in the first half, resulting in a fumble recovered by Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards.
Glennon tossed an interception on his first pass of the second half after the ball slipped out of his hand and floated to free safety Mike Mitchell.
Much like the end of the Monday night win against New England on Nov. 18, officials initially called the Panthers for pass interference on the play before picking up the flag. Cornerback Drayton Florence made contact with Vincent Jackson, but the penalty was waived off because Mitchell made the interception well in front of Jackson.
“Glennon was just throwing it up. He had no chance of getting it there,” Florence said. “That’s what happens when you keep hitting him.”
On the ensuing drive Newton completed three passes in a row, the last one a 36-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. to give the Panthers a 24-6 lead.
Ginn ran a hitch-and-go route that fooled cornerback Darrelle Revis, the four-time Pro Bowler acquired in a trade with Jets last offseason. Newton hit Ginn in stride and Ginn raced in for his fourth receiving touchdown. Ginn had six touchdown catches in his first six seasons combined.
“We wanted to go out and put them away,” Ginn said. “Our defense came up with a big play that gave us the opportunity to go out and capitalize on it, and that’s what we did.”
The Panthers led 17-6 at the half, tacking on a late touchdown after another “calculated risk” by Riverboat Ron Rivera.
After Greg Olsen’s 30-yard reception on a tight end screen gave the Panthers a first-and-goal at the 8, three short runs brought up a fourth-and-goal at the 1 with 30 seconds left. Rivera sent in several extra blockers, Newton took the shotgun snap, made a quick step to his right and dived over the pile, reaching the ball over the goal line.
The Panthers have converted 8 of 9 fourth-and-1 situations since Rivera changed his approach following a last-second loss at Buffalo in Week 2. Rivera opted for a field goal instead of going for a fourth-and-1 against the Bills, who drove for the game-winning drive against the Panthers’ injury-depleted secondary.
Rivera faced questions about his job security after last season, and again when the Panthers started 0-2 this season. Three months later, the Panthers are in position for their first playoff berth and division title since 2008.
“It’s very satisfying because of where we came from,” Rivera said. “As I’ve said before, it’s been a hard four years for a lot of guys in that locker room. It’s been a hard two years for myself and a lot of other people as well.
“It is very satisfying to be on a nice little roll, but again there is a lot of work to do.”
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