TAMPA, Fla. – The Carolina Panthers showed obvious improvement on offense against Tampa Bay on Sunday, matching the Buccaneers by producing five golden opportunities to score.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, they had to settle for the silver – a good outcome in the Olympics but a bad one in a football game.
While Tampa Bay turned its five scoring chances into four touchdowns and a field goal, the Panthers scored just one touchdown to go with three field goals and also were stood up at the goal line in the final minute of their 31-16 loss at Raymond James Stadium.
"When you're in a close game like that, field goals aren't going to win the game for you," rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen said. "When you get in the red zone, you need to put seven points on the board."
The Panthers (1-8) were inches from a touchdown that would have put them more than 20 points for just the second time this season, but Clausen got stopped on sneaks on third and fourth down in the final seconds.
That drive was the first desperate one of the day for Carolina, the first time all game when the possibility of winning seemed realistically out of reach.
Still, even with Clausen looking like a different quarterback than was in his stint as a starter earlier in the season, and with reserve running back Mike Goodson producing the Panthers' first 100-yard rushing game of the season, Carolina never led the resurgent Buccaneers (6-3).
"It's easy to match field goal for field goal, but when they score, we've got to score," said Goodson, who finished with 100 yards rushing with the tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart as well as reserve Tyrell Sutton inactive with injuries. "But we showed improvement. Hopefully next week we can come out and get the win."
The Panthers looked like they might have the winning formula in the third quarter. Down 21-10 at half, the defense pitched a shutout in the quarter, and the offensive and special teams units conspired to nearly tie the score.
A 34-yard hookup from Clausen to Steve Smith – who connected multiple times to multiple receivers downfield – and a 13-yard scamper by Goodson set up John Kasay for a 28-yard field goal to make it 21-13. Then, after a three-and-out by the defense, Captain Munnerlyn returned a punt 37 yards down the right sideline to move Carolina within 33 yards of the potential game-tying score.
But Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib stretched out to knock away what looked like a connection with Smith that could have gone a long ways on third down, forcing a 48-yard boot from Kasay to make it 21-16.
Tampa answered back with a field goal early in the fourth quarter, but it remained a one-score deficit at 24-16. The Buccaneers, however, came up with a stop with less than seven minutes to play, and the Carolina defense couldn't do the same.
Tampa converted a third-and-15 on a 16-yard screen pass from Josh Freeman to Carnell Williams with four minutes to go, then Williams turned a draw play on third-and-10 into a 45-yard run for the game-sealing score.
The decisive drive helped the Buccaneers finish with 421 yards, the most the Panthers have allowed this season.
"We had some breakdowns that we couldn't afford to have," said defensive end Everette Brown, who came up with his first sack of the season. "I think we got better as a team today. We improved in all three phases, but we just came up short there by giving up big plays, which we haven't really done defensively all year."
The defense struggled out of the chute, with an opponent opening with a touchdown for the third time this season. Goodson's only notable slip-up of the day came on a fumble on Carolina's opening drive, near midfield, setting up Tampa Bay to march 47 yards in just four plays to lead 7-0.
Freeman was even better than he was in the Buccaneers' 20-7 victory at Carolina nearly two months ago, ending the first half like he started it with a touchdown pass in the final minute for a 21-7 edge.
He wasn't the only quarterback to make progress, however. Clausen completed 16 of 29 passes for 191 yards, including six completions that gained 15 or more yards, and he didn't throw an interception.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, it wasn't enough.
"The guys in that locker room battled in a tough situation," head coach John Fox said. "It came down to them getting touchdowns in their first trips down there, and we got field goals.
"I thought guys made improvement. The results just weren't quite what we were looking for."