TAMPA, Fla. – Nothing whips a crowd into a frenzy quite like a touchdown, but there's another down that raises the noise level even before the snap.
It's also the down that most raises the stress level of a head coach.
They say football is a game of inches. It's actually a game of third down drama.
The Panthers proved that yet again Thursday night while coming away with a 31-13 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It wasn't a dominant effort across the board, but it was a mismatch come third down, and that helped make an otherwise statistically close game not very competitive on the scoreboard.
The Panthers converted 5-of-7 third downs in the first half, all five coming on their two touchdown drives. The Panthers defense allowed just two third-down conversions in six such situations for the Buccaneers before halftime, though Tampa Bay helped that cause with multiple unforced errors.
Leading 14-6 at halftime, with third-down stops having obviously kept Tampa Bay out of the end zone, the Panthers picked up where they left off, and then some. They shut down the Buccaneers' first two drives of the half with third-down stops, and in between the Panthers offense failed to convert on a third down but recovered via their newest weapon – the fourth-down conversion.
Fullback Mike Tolbert, a big part of the game plan Thursday, powered his way to a little more than a yard when the Panthers needed a yard. Four plays later – not on third or fourth down - quarterback Cam Newton turned a designed pass play into a 6-yard touchdown run for a 21-6 lead.
"Look at me: I'm 5-9, 250 pounds. I love stuff like that," Tolbert said. "As long as it's blocked up right, it should be a first down."
The Panthers offense entered the game ranking third in the NFL in third-down efficiency, converting 45.9 percent of the time. They converted all the important ones Thursday and finished 5-of-12 (41.7 percent), a figure that likely would have been higher had they not been in such command throughout the second half.
Defensively, Carolina continued its recent climb. Ranking just 21st in third-down situations through five games, the Panthers entered Thursday 15th-best in the league – making stops on 62.8 percent of third downs - before stopping Tampa Bay on 10 of 14 (71.4 percent).
"We've gotten better," safety Mike Mitchell said. "It's about our coaches stressing it. We've got the best teacher in the game with Coach (Steve) Wilks teaching us situations and formations and what not.
"So when it comes to third down, it's getting easier for us to make plays because we're eliminating certain options before the ball even gets snapped."
The Panthers' start to the game typified the third-down story. After the defense held Tampa Bay without a first down, the offense bounced back from a pair of negatives plays on its way to a nine-minute touchdown drive.
After overcoming a first-and-19 created by a rare offensive facemask penalty with the help of a Buccaneers penalty, the Panthers proceeded to convert a pair of long third downs and a pair of short ones. All of them, not surprisingly, included heavy involvement from Newton.
Newton got the drive going by zinging a 21-yarder across the middle to Steve Smith on third-and-9. He took care of third-and-1 himself with a 2-yard sneak. Then, on a third-and-12 at Tampa Bay's 35-yard line, Newton made the kind of play with his feet that fans would see several times on this night, turning a designed pass play into a 16-yard run.
He capped the impressive drive with his feet and arm, fending off a would-be tackler on a play-action play and then lofting the ball as a second defender closed in from the 14-yard line into the waiting arms of wide-open tight end Greg Olsen.
Officially, it was a 1-yard touchdown – on third down. And with that, a winning tone was set.
"That's how you draw it up," Olsen said. "We're pretty good on third down. The key to that is giving ourselves very manageable ones. We're very good on first and second down – we don't take a lot of sacks – and Cam does a good job of extending plays.
"We're just very efficient, very good in short yardage and in goal-line situations. We're very confident."