CHARLOTTE – Sunday's 27-21 loss in overtime to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the latest reminder of a trait that's haunted the Carolina Panthers all season.
They struggle to finish games.
"That's the story of our lives," said quarterback Cam Newton.
The Buccaneers erased an 11-point deficit in the final six minutes, then scored a touchdown on the opening possession of overtime.
"We just didn't finish the game," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "It's tough, and it's becoming too repetitive."
After Connor Barth connected on a 40-yard field goal to cut the Panthers' lead eight with 4:06 left, Tampa Bay got the ball back at their own 20-yard line with 1:02 remaining and no timeouts.
On the second play of the drive, Tiquan Underwood was drilled by linebacker Thomas Davis after making an 18-yard catch over the middle. Davis, whose shoulder made contact with Underwood's head, was penalized for unnecessary roughness, advancing the ball to the Carolina 47-yard line.
"Are we supposed to miss him and let him catch the ball clean?" head coach Ron Rivera said. "The receiver is going down, Thomas is coming across, how are we supposed to make plays on that?
"The referee made a judgment call. We have to live with it."
Five plays later, quarterback Josh Freeman fired a pass to the end zone for wide receiver Vincent Jackson. The pass soared between safeties Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin and over linebacker Luke Kuechly before Jackson snatched the ball in the back of the end zone for a 24-yard score with 12 seconds left.
"He's a good receiver, they threw a good ball, and they were able to make the catch," Kuechly said.
Freeman then connected with Jackson on a quick slant for the game-tying two-point conversion.
Tampa Bay won the overtime coin toss, and its offense went back to work on a deflated and tired defense. Rookie running back Doug Martin quickly led the Buccaneers into Carolina territory with 38 rushing yards on the first two plays.
"The defense got worn down a little bit," Rivera said. "We had done a nice job stopping the run for the most part for most of the day, and to allow that to happen in the overtime was disappointing."
Freeman's 4-yard completion to Jackson on third-and-1 gave Tampa Bay a first down at the Panthers' 15-yard line.
On the next play, Dallas Clark ran free down the left sideline after linebacker James Anderson slipped in coverage, and Freeman found his tight end for the game-winning 15-yard touchdown.
"It's real tough. I'm over there crossing my fingers, hoping we get the ball first, because I know one thing – if we got the ball first we would have gone out there and won this game," wide receiver Cam Newton said. "I was hoping the defense was going to hold them to a field goal, which they didn't, but that's the rules."
Tampa Bay jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, but the Carolina defense produced three takeaways to help turn the momentum.
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn – who previously fumbled a punt that led to a Tampa Bay field goal – intercepted an overthrown Freeman pass for Clark and returned it 74 yards for a touchdown late in the first quarter.
"I was able to get some pressure on him and force him into a bad throw," defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. "All I heard was the crowd going crazy, so I knew we got an interception. Luckily we were able to put some points on the board and turn the game around."
The Panthers took a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter, as running back Christian McCaffrey dove up the middle for a 1-yard touchdown. Kicker Justin Medlock was in position to add to the lead before halftime, but his 40-yard attempt sailed wide right.
A goal line takeaway allowed Carolina to maintain the lead in the fourth quarter.
On fourth-and-inches from the Panthers' 2-yard line, Davis jarred the ball out of Martin's hands just before the running back crossed the goal line. Kuechly recovered the fumble in the end zone, and the Carolina offense promptly produced a 7-play, 80-yard scoring drive.
LaFell caught a 29-yard touchdown with 6:06 remaining in the fourth quarter to give the Panthers a 21-10 advantage.
After a Tampa Bay field goal, the Panthers' offense had an opportunity to seal the win. They took over with 4:03 left in regulation and picked up two first downs before facing third-and-12 coming out of the two-minute warning.
Newton ran right and came up one yard short of the first down marker.
"We ran some of the clock off but we just missed that last first down by a yard," Olsen said. "(A conversion) ends the game right there."
Instead, the Panthers were forced to punt. The offense never got another chance to take the field as the Buccaneers rallied for the overtime win.
"This is about as bad as it gets," Rivera said. "We had every opportunity."