Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel take turns making dynamic plays

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CHARLOTTE - The most prolific first half in the history of Carolina Panthers football had a highlight waiting after every whistle, but two plays stood a little above the rest.

With all due respect to Greg Olsen's tip-it-to-himself touchdown grab to cap the 35-point half, most of the post-game buzz surrounded Curtis Samuel's 33-yard touchdown run on a double reverse and Christian McCaffrey's leap over a would-be tackle on his way to a 32-yard gainer.

Officially, that's a touchdown run by a wide receiver and a lengthy reception by a running back.

Unofficially, that's the versatility of the Panthers' first two picks in the 2017 NFL Draft on full display – and proof of why they were Carolina's first two picks.

"When they have the ball in space, anything can happen," McCaffrey said. "We have so many playmakers. You saw what Curtis did today."

Samuel came into the game with two career touchdowns but doubled that total with his remarkable first-half run and a second-half reception that sealed a 42-28 victory over the Buccaneers. McCaffrey has enjoyed a much healthier, much more consistent start to his career than Samuel and has found his way in the end zone often, but in addition to Sundays' acrobatic catch-and-run, he recorded the first multiple-rushing-touchdown game of his career.

"It starts with the O-line, and those guys dominated today," McCaffrey said. "They played so well. When they go, we go."

The line was out in front on McCaffrey's highlight play with five minutes left in the first quarter, when quarterback Cam Newton faked a handoff to McCaffrey, then faked an option pitch to receiver DJ Moore wide right before quickly turning back and hitting McCaffrey on a screen just before Newton got hit.

As McCaffrey reached the line of scrimmage along the left side, he hurdled over cornerback Carlton Davis III and then steamed down the sideline for 32 yards down to the Tampa 39. Moore gained another 32 on a reverse on the very next play, and two plays later McCaffrey fought his way in from the 3 to build Carolina's lead to 14-0.

"It was kind of just a reaction thing – last second," McCaffrey said. "I saw him going low and I was kind of in an awkward position on a cut, so I had to go up. It was pretty instinctual. I'm glad it worked out. It could have gone wrong."

McCaffrey finished the day with 79 rushing yards and 78 receiving yards on five catches, his run game highlighted by two short touchdowns and a 35-yard run where he tiptoed down the sideline to set up Carolina's fourth touchdown in as many drives (and his second TD run).

His most important catch may have been a short one on third-and-2 early in the fourth quarter that he turned into a 20-yard gainer. Tampa had trimmed a 28-point deficit all the way down to 35-28, and the play set the stage for Samuel to cut across the middle a few plays later for a 19-yard touchdown grab that put the game away.

"It was a one-on-one matchup. Once the play was called, I knew it was coming my way," Samuel said. "I was like, 'I've got to make a play in the air.' Cam gave me a great chance at the ball, and I went up and came down with it."

Samuel had only one more reception on the day and just one rushing attempt – but what a rush it was. With Carolina leading 14-7 early in the second quarter and driving, Newton faked a handoff to McCaffrey and handed the ball to Moore coming around from the left side before he pitched it to Samuel steaming toward the left sideline.

That was only the beginning.

"It was an amazing play. Everybody blocked for me. I went down the sideline, looked to my right, and I said, 'Go Curt, Go Curt,'" said Samuel, who weaved his way 103.8 yards according to NFL Next Gen Stats on his 33-yard run to the right side of the end zone. "Once Coach (Norv Turner) called the play, I said, 'This play is too sweet for me not to score.' It's too nice of a play for me to not score.

"The defense was caught all off-guard."

That, at the end of the day, was what Sunday was all about. Misdirection, featuring unique playmakers just hitting their stride in the NFL.

"We've got a couple of dynamic young guys who can be explosive," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Who knows what might happen next week? Somebody else might step up."

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