CHARLOTTE – It was talked about in the locker room at halftime. The Panthers, then leading 35-14, told themselves not to let up in the second half, that this Tampa Bay team was going make a push.
Just last week at Cincinnati, the Buccaneers rallied back from a 27-9 halftime deficit and wound up losing in overtime.
"We talked at halftime, 'We don't need to make these close. We don't have to make them so hard,'" tight end Greg Olsen said. "But we typically do."
Tampa Bay sure made things interesting, scoring 21 unanswered points to pull within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Did the Panthers collectively let their foot off the gas? What happened in the third quarter?
"There is an element of water kind of finding its natural level. We were such on a high, it's almost inevitable to at some point find a little neutral," Olsen said. "And we knew this was not going to be a, 'come out for the second half and roll the ball out there and be done.'
"We were just out of our sync after a great start."
The Panthers offense was unstoppable in the first half, scoring touchdowns on five straight drives after opening the game with a three-and-out.
But Carolina looked discombobulated and went backwards on both drives to start the second half, as quarterback Cam Newton was sacked on both.
"We have to be better in the third quarter," Newton said. "Coach mentioned it. I've mentioned it. Everybody really notices it."
Later, after Tampa Bay cut the deficit to 14, a fourth-and-1 opportunity turned into fourth-and-6 after an illegal procedure. Then wide receiver Devin Funchess was stopped three yards short of the line to gain. Carolina also burned all three timeouts as a result of some miscommunication during that series.
"We didn't play to our abilities at a certain stretch, but you have to give them credit," head coach Ron Rivera said.
With the Bucs facing third-and-17 at the their own 14-yard line, wide receiver Chris Godwin somehow was left wide open for a 25-yard catch, which preceded Adam Humphries 30-yard catch and run touchdown to cut the lead to 35-28.
The NFL's top-ranked offense finally started looking like it. And some breakdowns defensively helped.
"They're the number one offense in the league – we have to take that into consideration," safety Mike Adams said. "We didn't let them have things. We gave up some things we shouldn't have given up, granted, but it's the National Football League. It happens."
When the defense returned to the sideline, defensive coordinator Eric Washington huddled the group together to re-calibrate.
"They were gaining a lot of momentum in the second half. We didn't play well," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "We had to stop the bleeding. When we have a team down, we have to finish them."
Newton and the offense put an end to the drama with a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in response to extend the lead back to two scores.
Wide receiver Curtis Samuel hauled in a 19-yard touchdown to calm the nerves of everyone watching in the stands and at home.
"The big drive that showed a lot was that fourth-quarter drive to put the score back to 14," Olsen said. "Took the momentum of the game back."
Carolina's defense took the field twice more. First they forced a punt on fourth-and-20. Then cornerback Donte Jackson picked off a pass in the final minutes to essentially seal it.
In the end, what once was a blowout turned into a four-quarter battle. One way or another, that's usually how NFL games go.
But that doesn't mean there isn't a lesson to be learned here as the Panthers move into the second half of the season.
"We as a football team have to continue to play to our abilities," Rivera said, "and just be consistent as a football team."
View game action photos from the Panthers 42-28 win against the Buccaneers.