The Tampa Bay Buccaneers weren’t exactly favorites on their home turf against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night, but they certainly had motivation coming into a make-or-break game for Greg Schiano, as well as a few seemingly favorable matchups on defense. Despite these aspects going in their favor, the Bucs were beat down by the Panthers through a combination of long, grinding drives and suffocating defense. The Panthers now have a three-game winning streak after starting 1-3, and have somehow pushed themselves into the playoff conversation with their performance. Here’s what we learned from the Thursday night matchup:
Superman Goes Clark Kent
Cam Newton has experienced an evolution this season; one that not only allows him to put up good numbers, but also put up wins — a shift the franchise has been long awaiting. Newton has stopped forcing himself to be the center of Carolina’s offense, and has instead turned to distributing playmaking responsibilities, and as a result, they have become a clock-eating behemoth. Newton’s decision making has been stellar this season, finding the open receiver when available and taking off when the time is right. He has always been the engine of this offense, but now that he has found a way to evenly incorporate his teammates, the Panthers have become a well-oiled machine.
The Big D
Carolina’s defense has been the best in football through the past four games, save for possibly the Kansas City Chiefs, and it really showed against Tampa. The defensive line was swarming, holding Mike James to 39 yards on 10 carries, and the two-headed monster of Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson had two sacks each. The secondary has been especially impressive over the past few weeks, making big plays and forcing turnovers instead over being the weakness they were perceived to being due to youth and injuries. Captain Munnerlyn has quietly been a stud, forcing two turnovers last week and failing to surrender a touchdown this year.
Cue the Jim Mora videos, the playoff speculations have arrived. Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com has Carolina making the playoffs, and everything about their performance over the past three weeks points in that direction. There’s no doubt that Carolina is one of the hottest teams in the league right now, but a playoff prediction may be a little premature. Newton has proven himself to be capable delivering wins for the Panthers, but he has also developed a reputation as an extremely streaky quarterback in his time in the league, so there is no guarantee he can continue this run. Carolina has also faced fairly meager competition over the past three weeks, with all three teams being at the bottom of their respective divisions. The Panthers have great potential, but only time will tell if they can realize it.