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What We Learned: Panthers vs. Buccaneers

Posted Jan 3, 2016

Cam Newton takes total control of MVP race with stellar Week 17 performance; rookies Devin Funchess and Cameron Artis-Payne prove they can help Carolina in big moments.

1. NEWTON MADE STRONG FINAL CASE FOR MVP: The voting for NFL Most Valuable Player ends Tuesday, so Week 17 served as the final opportunity for those in the running to make a statement.

Quarterback Cam Newton all but locked it up with his performance against the Buccaneers. He completed 21-of-26 passes for 293 yards and accounted for four touchdowns – two passing and two rushing.

For the season, Newton finished with 3,837 passing yards and 35 passing touchdowns to go along with 636 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. Newton is the first player with at least 30 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns in a single season.

Head coach Ron Rivera spoke for the entire Panthers organization when he called Newton the MVP. "For me and I’m biased," he said.

But objective voters should come to the same conclusion about the leader of the best team during the regular season.

Newton’s historically significant accomplishments only served to emphasize the impressiveness of his production. On Sunday, the fifth-year quarterback matched Steve Young with 31 games with at least one passing and one rushing touchdown and tied Young for most career rushing touchdowns for a quarterback with 43.

"I don’t want to dwell on that right now," Newton said of the MVP talk. "There are a lot of (teammates) that have selfless approaches that make me glorified to a degree."

Of course, Newton cares more about his team and its postseason focus. You’d expect nothing less from the league’s clear-cut MVP.

2. YOUNGSTERS ROSE TO OCCASION: Even without its No. 1 running back and No. 1 wide receiver, the Panthers managed to score 38 points in their victory over Tampa Bay.

A pair of rookies played large roles in that result.

Running back Cameron Artis-Payne scored his first career touchdown with an 11-yard run in the second quarter and wide receiver Devin Funchess produced his first career 100-yard game, finishing with seven catches on eight targets for 120 yards and a touchdown.

"It’s great to see the young guys getting opportunities to contribute," Rivera said. "I’m really proud of the effort we got from them."

Artis-Payne said he’s beginning to feel more comfortable, and it showed. He finished with 14 carries for 44 yards and also had two catches for 17 yards.

Funchess has had a more consistent role throughout the year, and Sunday’s performance seemed to reflect his growth. But he was fixated on one mistake after the game.

"I didn’t even know my stats, to be honest," Funchess said. "I just messed up on that fumble. I gave them three points. I lost an opportunity on that drive.

"I wasn’t satisfied with my performance."

The accountability is appreciated, but the point remains – these two rookies can help this team win in the postseason.

3. SPECIAL DAY FOR SPECIAL TEAMS: Graham Gano’s final PAT of the regular season gave him his lone chance to break Carolina’s season scoring record.

He had to sweat it out every inch of the way, as the 33-yarder banged off the upright and through to give him 146 points – one more than John Kasay in 1996.

"I was just laughing afterwards. Sometimes you get a little luck," Gano said. "It’s exciting to be able to have a record like that, just to be mentioned with John, who was such a great kicker who had an amazing NFL career. It’s pretty special. It takes a lot more than me to get that done. I’m excited for my guys."

While Gano was his steady self with eight points on the day, the Panthers also made a less common splash on special teams, when Teddy Williams forced a fumble and Joe Webb scooped it up and nearly scored.

"Knowing that the returner was trying to stretch the ball to the wide side of the field, I just played my game and tried to help the team," Williams said. "We always go out there with the mindset to contribute to the team. We want to have game-breaking plays.

"Anytime we can help momentum or field position, we’re all in."

4. ENDS ENDED LONG DROUGHT: Mario Addison recorded the first full sack for a Carolina defensive end in five weeks, since defensive end Kony Ealy’s streak of five consecutive games with a sack came to a close. Addison had four quarterback hurries, while Ealy and Charles Johnson added one apiece. Overall, it was a noticeable increase in disruption off the edge.

It’s a start, and the Panthers want their ends to finish better, but it’s not any sort of panic situation by any stretch. Carolina ranks sixth in the NFL with 44 sacks, and the Panthers’ defensive ends showed again Sunday that they’re not just about sacks.

On a three-and-out late in the first half that left Carolina time to march down for a touchdown before halftime, Johnson and Jared Allen combined to corral running back Doug Martin for a 6-yard loss, then Allen made a nice tackle in the open field on a short pass to force a punt.

5. CONCERNING INJURY FOR TILLMAN: Rivera said his team’s health is "relatively good" headed to the postseason. He just has to hope he gets a relatively good report on cornerback Charles Tillman.

Tillman left on the fourth play of the second half with a right knee injury and did not return. This was his third game back after missing four games with an injury to the same knee.

"There is some concern," Rivera said.

Recently signed cornerback Robert McClain helped assuage some of that concern with a fourth-quarter interception in place of Tillman, and recent addition Cortland Finnegan continued to make a positive impact at nickel corner.

In addition to Tillman, linebacker A.J. Klein left with a hamstring injury.


Staff writer Max Henson and senior writer Bryan Strickland contributed to this report.