CHARLOTTE - The Carolina Panthers delivered an early Christmas present to their fans Saturday, cruising past the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48-16 in their home finale at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers (6-9) won for the fourth time in their last five games – but for the first time at home during the stretch – scoring on all but one of their possessions before quarterback
Carolina's offense put up the second-most points in franchise history and tied for the second-most rushing yards (270). The defense forced three turnovers, and special teams came up with yet another.
"Things have been pretty good this last month. Things have been coming together," said running back
Newton, before departing the game early for the first time all season, set an NFL record.
On the opening drive of the game, Newton's 7-yard completion to wide receiver
"For me to come in and do this is a tribute to so many people, including my coaches," said Newton, who added a 49-yard touchdown run during the Panthers' third-quarter onslaught. "You've got
"They make my job easy. All I've got to do is put the ball in their vicinity, and they do the rest."
Carolina scored on every first-half possession, yet Tampa Bay remained within range, trailing 20-10 at halftime. But the third quarter, often a sticky spot for the Panthers this season, erased any doubts.
Later in the quarter, the defense made another play when a Tampa Bay trick play imploded. Tight end Kellen Winslow caught a pass on a flea-flicker of sorts but fumbled on a hit by linebacker
The Panthers quickly went 61 yards for another touchdown, this one on an 11-yard pass to Stewart on fourth-and-1 for a 34-10 lead.
It wasn't over.
The Buccaneers crossed midfield on their ensuing drive but gave up the ball on downs, setting up Newton to keep the ball on an option play and speed untouched down the middle for a 49-yard touchdown, the longest run by a quarterback in franchise history.
Tampa Bay wide receiver Sammie Stroughter then fumbled the kickoff on a huge hit by linebacker
"The third quarter has kind of been our nemesis. We've really had a lot of letdowns, so to come out still hot was great," left tackle
That was also the only time all day the Panthers didn't score with Newton under center. The offense was unstoppable in the first half, but the defense couldn't stop Tampa Bay on a couple of key third downs that allowed the Buccaneers to hang around.
Williams started the scoring with an 8-yard touchdown run to cap an 80-yard drive following the opening kickoff. On the first play of the drive, Stewart moved into second place on the Panthers' all-time rushing list behind Williams with a 13-yard rush that moved him ahead of DeShaun Foster.
Tampa Bay's first play didn't go nearly as well. Quarterback Josh Freeman and running back LeGarrette Blount couldn't connect for the handoff, and James Anderson dove on the loose ball at Tampa Bay's 8-yard line.
The Panthers converted the turnover into a 21-yard field goal from
"Anytime you can get turnovers and get the ball back in Cam's hands, that's big," Anderson said. "We played well as a team and made big plays when we needed to."
The Buccaneers responded by taking 26 of the game's next 28 offensive snaps, yet the Panthers still came out of it with a 17-7 lead.
First, Tampa Bay consumed 9:20 while covering 80 yards in 15 plays, capped by Arrelious Benn's 4-yard touchdown reception. The next time the Buccaneers had the ball, they went 61 yards in 11 plays for a 42-yard field goal from Connor Barth.
In between Tampa Bay's scores, however, the Panthers needed just two plays to find the end zone – in historic fashion. After a 1-yard run by Stewart to Carolina's 9, Newton spotted LaFell near the 30. LaFell stopped and jumped to snare the ball over cornerback E.J. Briggs and then took off, with Smith supplying the final block that sprung him for a 91-yard touchdown – the longest offensive play in team history.
"I thought it was probably just the longest play this year, but to be a part of history, that's great," LaFell said. "They kept rolling the safety over on top of Smitty the whole game, so I had one-on-one coverage. I beat my man, and Cam threw it up and gave me a chance to make a play, and Smitty made a big-time block downfield that let me coast on in."
And from there, the Panthers coasted to another impressive victory.
"We had some real good things happen for us," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "I think the thing that was really gratifying to see was the contribution from all the guys. It didn't matter what position – guys were making plays, getting turnovers, scoring touchdowns.
"Guys made big plays to score, and that's what you need to do if you're going to compete in this league."