CHARLOTTE – At times, they made it hard on themselves. At other times, they caught some breaks. But at this time of the season, you take a win any way you can get it.
On Sunday, the Carolina Panthers held on for a hard-fought 19-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium to stay very much alive for the NFC South division title.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly intercepted a desperation throw by Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown to seal the win with six seconds left.
"I'm fired up for our guys," head coach Ron Rivera said. "This has been an up and down year for us in terms of things that have happened to us. We have fought through it."
Carolina fought through Sunday's ups and downs to claim its second consecutive victory on the heels of a seven game winless streak.
Despite outgaining the Buccaneers by 93 yards and recording 10 more first downs, the Panthers trailed 10-9 at halftime due to red zone inefficiency.
"You have to punch it in when you have the opportunity," Rivera said. "Kudos to them for forcing us to kick three field goals."
Quarterback Derek Anderson, starting his second game of the season in place of an injured Cam Newton, routinely led Carolina into Tampa Bay territory, but the drives stalled because of penalties, negative plays or both.
Panthers kicker Graham Gano connected on field goals from 29, 49 and 38 yards out. He missed a 50-yard attempt wide left.
The Buccaneers on the other hand, found the end zone in the first quarter when quarterback Josh McCown lofted a pinpoint fade pass to rookie wide receiver Mike Evans, who tapped both feet in the corner of the end zone for the 8-yard touchdown.
"I'm so upset with myself over that," cornerback Josh Norman said. "It dropped into the bread basket… But I could have carried him out of bounds or something. I just have to be better on that, and I will."
Tampa Bay kicker Patrick Murray connected on a 48-yard field goal with two seconds remaining in the second quarter to give the Buccaneers a one-point lead at halftime.
But the Panthers defense quickly turned the game quickly on the opening series of the third quarter.
On third-and-15 from the Tampa Bay 15-yard line, defensive ends Mario Addison and Charles Johnson combined to sack McCown and Addison ripped the ball out. Defensive tackle Kawann Short recovered at the 4-yard line.
"We knew we needed a play," Addison said.
Two plays later, Anderson faked a handoff to fullback Mike Tolbert and threw a strike to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery for a 2-yard touchdown – his first score of the season – to put Carolina ahead, 16-10.
"We had repped that in practice and in the walkthrough, and D.A. threw a great ball in a tight window," Cotchery said. "It was just up to me to make the play after that."
The Panthers appeared poised to add to their lead after forcing a Tampa Bay three-and-out. Carolina moved 61 yards in five plays to set up second-and-one from the 3-yard line.
Running back Jonathan Stewart ran in search of the end zone, but Buccaneers cornerback Alterraun Verner stripped the ball and defensive tackle Akeem Spence made the recovery.
From there, both offenses struggled to sustain drives. Twice, the Panthers punted after starting drives inside Tampa Bay territory, and the fourth quarter began with Carolina clinging to a six-point lead.
"It felt for a while there we were letting them stick around too much," said tight end Greg Olsen, who tied his career-high with 10 catches for 110 yards, his third 100-yard receiving game of the season. "You have to be careful that doesn't come back to bite you. Our defense really gave us a chance when we were stubbing our toe."
The fourth quarter began with a turnover that was almost immediately followed by another turnover.
Safety Roman Harper blitzed and hit McCown's throwing hand just before he released the ball, forcing what the Panthers believed was a fumble cornerback Bene Benwikere recovered at the Carolina 27-yard line.
The officials ruled it incomplete, but Rivera challenged and the call was overturned.
"I want to give credit to the coaches upstairs," Rivera said. "They urged me to throw the (challenge) flag. They kept yelling, 'Empty hand, empty hand,' so that meant (Harper) knocked it loose."
Carolina nearly gave it right back. Olsen bobbled a pass that was intercepted by Tampa Bay linebacker Orie Lemon and returned to the Carolina 31-yard line, but linebacker Larry English was penalized for roughing the passer, wiping out a huge play for the Buccaneers.
The Panthers proceeded to drive into Tampa Bay territory, advancing to the Buccaneers' 27-yard line before Anderson narrowly avoided an interception. Anderson's throw to wide receiver Philly Brown on third-and-seven was read by Verner, but he dropped it. Gano then made a 45-yard field goal to give Carolina a 19-10 lead with 8:31 remaining.
"That penalty that took away an interception from us really hurt, and we dropped another interception," Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith said. "Big swing in the game. That really affected the outcome."
McCown kept Tampa Bay alive by scrambling and eluding several defenders for a 16-yard touchdown with 3:11 left.
The Buccaneers burned all three timeouts after a 12-yard catch by Kelvin Benjamin, a 3-yard run by Stewart and a 10-yard catch by Benjamin.
"We had to (throw) because they were packing it in," Rivera explained. "Kudos to the decision making by Derek Anderson at that point."
Stewart rushed three times for minimal gains before and after the two-minute warning, and Brad Nortman's punt was fair caught at the Tampa Bay 10-yard line with just 23 seconds left.
Two plays later, McCown was hurried, and Kuechly picked off his heave for Evans.
"You taste that win and you want more of it," Kuechly said. "You get one win and you want a second one. Now we want a third one. What are we going to do to get that third win? That'll be our goal this week."