TAMPA, Fla. – Bradley Bozeman knows the Panthers' offensive line will have plenty to discuss when they review the film on Sunday's 30-24 loss to the Buccaneers.
But in the locker room after Carolina dropped a pivotal matchup to Tampa Bay, losing out on the NFC South title and any remaining postseason hopes, Bozeman couldn't immediately point out precisely what went wrong up front.
The physicality that had led the Panthers to wins like last week's over Detroit, kept Sam Darnold from being touched by the Lions, and set the tone for a franchise-best rushing day on Christmas Eve, didn't manifest against the Bucs. But their strategy wasn't something brand new to the Panthers.
"(It was) nothing we hadn't seen before," Bozeman said. "I think we kind of did what we wanted to in the first half – haven't watched the film, so I don't really know what happened (in) the second half. I don't know if it was us, or them, or whatever it was. But we have to execute better, no matter what the play call is. … Just got to execute, got to keep protecting (Darnold) better."
Darnold was sacked twice for a loss of 15 yards and committed three turnovers – an interception and two fumbles. A game with rapid, intense momentum shifts, which Carolina led for most of the afternoon, felt like it was all but officially over when Darnold was strip-sacked when Tampa Bay linebacker Anthony Nelson beat rookie left tackle Ikem Ekwonu with 2:32 left.
With the Panthers down by three points, Nelson knocked the ball away from Darnold inside the Carolina 15-yard line. Nose tackle Vita Vea recovered the ball at the 6-yard line to set up for an easy Tom Brady touchdown a couple of plays later.
Coming into Sunday, Darnold was on a career-best run of four straight starts without a turnover.
"A lot of emotion goes into it," Darnold said. "We know the kind of preparation that goes into it throughout the week – not just throughout the week, but throughout the whole season – to accomplish our goal. We were right there at the end, and we just couldn't get it done."
The Panthers found their identity on offense the past few weeks through a dominant force of a run game led by D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard. Since interim head coach Steve Wilks took over in Week 6, they had averaged 151.6 rush yards per game.
But much like in a Week 15 loss to the Steelers, the Panthers were often faced with a loaded box, a strategic call by the Bucs to make Carolina win through the air. As a result, the rushing attack was held to 74 yards on 22 attempts, one week after a 320-yard performance against the Lions. The Panthers' longest run Sunday was an 11-yard Darnold scramble.
Foreman put up just 35 yards on 13 carries, one week removed from a career-best 165 yards.
"It's very frustrating," Foreman said. "We worked hard to get to this position. Nobody was going to hand us anything, give us anything. So a lot of credit to (Tampa Bay), man; they went out there and made more plays than we did today. Proud of every guy in this locker room.
"I know we fought hard. Nobody gave up. Everybody knew what the task was. Unfortunately, that's part of the NFL. You prepare well, go out there and give it your all, and sometimes (it) just doesn't work out for you. So (we've) just got to find a way to get better."
Right guard Austin Corbett had an honest take on high expectations of the ground game, while also crediting Tampa Bay's front seven.
"It's not going to be the same thing every week, being able to run for 300-plus yards," he said. "Obviously, a great front seven over there. Big bodies, fast at the linebacker position. We took our opportunities to run the ball when we can, make some good first downs, some good headway there, threw the ball well. We just have to find a way to finish, and really can't beat ourselves."
And even though the playoff hopes are gone, the Panthers have one more divisional matchup at New Orleans on deck. So there is an immediate reason to want to flush it, learn from it, and keep going. They've given enough effort to this point and played meaningful football in January amid a rollercoaster of a season, and they established something resembling a personality on offense.
"I think everyone on this team just fought their butts off, scrapped and clawed to get to the point to give us a chance, and I don't see that changing any time between now and next week," Bozeman said. "These guys are continuing to fight for each other – defense, offense, special teams, offensive line, quarterbacks, everyone. You saw it out there. Guys were fighting and trying to give everything they had in the end. Just didn't quite work out for us."
View the best in-game photos from Carolina's Week 17 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on New Years Day.