CHARLOTTE – There was no fourth-quarter comeback required this time.
After quarterback Cam Newton leaped over the pile and reached the ball across the goal line on fourth-and-goal just before halftime, Carolina seized control of Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and claimed a franchise-record eighth-straight win with a 27-6 victory.
"It's great to be a part of," Newton said. "But we're not done yet."
The Buccaneers – who entered the game having won three straight and averaging 29 points per game in those wins – were held scoreless for the final three quarters after producing six points in the first quarter.
"You can attribute (the win streak) to growth on this team, I think in everybody," wide receiver Steve Smith said. "It's 11 guys doing their jobs, doing their assignments. We've been doing it as a team. That's what you're seeing – us evolve as a good, consistent team."
After falling behind 3-0, Newton ignited the Carolina offense with a 56-yard scramble. Newton ran left and thought about going down for a solid 15-yard gain. Then he realized Smith sealed off cornerback Darelle Revis, and he went for more.
"I couldn't have done it without the block by Steve," Newton said.
Not only did Smith block Revis, but he blocked the cornerback into hard-charging safety Mark Barron, which allowed Newton to sprint downfield before getting tripped up at the Tampa Bay 15-yard line.
"Cam got us started with that great run," tight end Greg Olsen said. "From that point on, we really played well."
Two plays later, Newton found wide receiver Brandon LaFell wide open in the back of the end zone. There wasn't a defender in sight and all LaFell had to do was secure the catch and tap two feet inbounds for a 16-yard touchdown.
"It's so hard, because the ball is in the air for so long and you know you are running out of real estate," LaFell said. "The whole time I was like, 'Don't look down, don't look down, just keep looking up at the ball.' I just kept my eyes on the ball."
Newton targeted LaFell later in the first quarter, but his high pass went off his hands and into the grasp of safety Keith Tandy. It was one of Newton's two interceptions on the day.
"I should have caught that," LaFell said. "That's not on Cam."
Tampa Bay turned that takeaway into a 53-yard field goal from Rian Lindell.
The Buccaneers were in position to take the lead early in the second quarter. But on third-and-goal from the Carolina 4-yard line Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon lost control of the ball as he wound up to pass, and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards pounced on it at the Carolina 19.
"The ball slipped out of my hand," Glennon said, "and it really hurt us, because we would have gotten at least three points in that situation."
The Panthers converted their first takeaway into a 23-yard field goal by Graham Gano to increase their lead to 10-6.
Newton increased it to 17-6 with his 1-yard touchdown leap on fourth-and-goal with 25 seconds left in the first half.
"I liked the way we were moving the ball and I felt really confident and really comfortable in our ability right there," head coach Ron Rivera said. "To me, it was a point in the game where if you can score points going in (to halftime), I think it sends a really good message. And if you don't score, the way we were playing defense, I felt really comfortable."
Fortunately for Rivera, Carolina scored and the defense remained in complete control.
"We played well today," rookie linebacker A.J. Klein said. "We made the adjustments we needed to and we shut them out the last three quarters."
Following an interception by safety Mike Mitchell on an underthrown deep ball for wide receiver Vincent Jackson, Carolina needed just four plays to find the end zone again in the third quarter.
Wide receiver Ted Ginn ran a stop-and-go and beat Revis for a game-breaking 36-yard touchdown catch down the sideline to give the Panthers a 24-6 lead.
A 22-yard field goal by Gano closed out the scoring.
Carolina's decisive win sets up a thrilling Sunday night matchup against the Saints next week in New Orleans with first place in the NFC South on the line.
"We all know that all roads are leading to New Orleans," Newton said. "We are going to have a great week of practice and get prepared to face a great team."