CHARLOTTE – Early in the second quarter of the Panthers' home opener Sunday, all Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib could do was watch as Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith shed him on a fourth-down reception and scooted 37 yards for the tying touchdown.
Maybe, just maybe, quarterback Matt Moore and the Panthers offense were ready to roll.
Two hours later, however, with Jimmy Clausen in at quarterback and Carolina still searching for its next points, all the Panthers could do was watch as Talib picked off a pass and put the finishing touch on the Buccaneers' 20-7 victory at Bank of America Stadium.
"You are not going to win your share of games in this league scoring seven points," head coach John Fox said. "We weren't good enough offensively; that was evident.
"We had opportunities. We had drops. We had misses. That was the difference in the score."
That, and the uncanny ability of Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman to take advantage of opportunities that didn't even seem to be there. In the first half, Freeman and the Buccaneers converted five of the six times they faced third down and 9 or more yards to go.
As a result, a Tampa Bay team that won just three games all of last season improved to 2-0 while dropping the Panthers to 0-2.
"When you get an opportunity to make a play, when it's your turn, you have to make it. They did that today, and we didn't," said Panthers linebacker Jon Beason, who had nine tackles in the loss. "There's no cavalry coming. The guys in this locker room are the guys who are going to get it turned around.
"We have to look at ourselves individually and decide, 'What are we going to do?' "
The Carolina defense held the Buccaneers to 273 yards and 14 first downs, but it couldn't hold up when it mattered most.
Tampa Bay took the lead when, on its second drive of the day, Freeman hit tight end Kellen Winslow for 24 yards on third and 10 and then Freeman scrambled for 17 yards on third and 11. On the next play, Freeman found Earnest Graham out of the backfield wide open for a 14-yard score.
Following Smith's score, Tampa Bay retook the lead thanks to another pair of third-down conversions. Freeman hit Winslow for an 8-yard gain on third and 6, then, on third and 17, Freeman escaped near sacks by Charles Johnson and Eric Norwood before zinging one to Winslow down the right sideline for a 40-yard gain.
On the next snap, Freeman hit rookie Mike Williams open on the right sideline, and Williams zipped through a seam down the middle, leaving five Panthers in his wake for a 35-yard score and a 14-7 lead midway through the second quarter.
"We were awful on third down," Beason said. "Kellen made some plays, and Josh made some plays with his legs. The kid played great. He made some passes, and he showed his athletic ability, being a scrambler when he had to."
The Panthers defense held Tampa Bay to a pair of field goals the rest of the way, but the offense had no answers. Moore, even with the 37-yard TD to Smith, went 6 of 16 for 125 yards and an interception before the Panthers switched to Clausen with 10 minutes left.
Carolina marched 78 yards on 18 plays on Clausen's initial drive but still came up short, the Buccaneers all but sealing the outcome by stopping running back Jonathan Stewart on fourth down from the 1.
Clausen, who went 7-for-13 for 59 yards, got one more chance, but Talib quickly ended that with his interception.
The Panthers finished with 5 more yards of total offense and two more first downs than the Buccaneers but were left with nothing to show for it.
"We left a lot of plays out there," said Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams, who had 54 yards rushing and 20 yards receiving. "We were inconsistent, and we've got to be consistent to win football games in the National Football League.
"You practice and practice until you're blue in the face, and sometimes it doesn't work out like you had planned. It definitely didn't work out like we planned it today."