CHARLOTTE – "There's still a chance. There's still hope. Sometimes that's all you need."
Those were head coach Ron Rivera's words after what linebacker Luke Kuechly called a "stressful" victory, a 22-19 triumph over Tampa Bay that propelled the Panthers into the playoffs.
Rivera was referencing the fact that his team, with some help, can still win the NFC South. Heck, it's even still possible that the Panthers can wind up with a bye as the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
But Rivera's words also fit with what happened as the clock ran down Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, as a game that many assumed the Panthers would run away instead sped toward a climactic ending that clinched Carolina's fourth trip to the playoffs in five seasons.
Rivera took nothing for granted. He watched last Monday night as a Buccaneers team going nowhere fast said "not so fast" to a Falcons team fighting for its playoff lives. In that game, the Buccaneers worked into position in the final seconds for a field goal that could have tied it but ultimately missed the mark.
Tampa was back at it Sunday, and the Panthers were the ones with their backs against the wall.
"We were fortunate to come out on top," Rivera said after being asked if he expected such a fight. "Honestly? Yes. I talked to our guys about it on Wednesday. If you watched the Monday night game and saw how they played Atlanta, that told you something."
Then, just in time, Rivera's team showed something – something it's shown all season.
"I'm proud of this team's resilience," quarterback Cam Newton said.
It started to look like Newton might not get his hands on the ball to try to pull the Panthers out of the fire. An uneven day on both sides of the ball – but an effort buoyed by Damiere Byrd's franchise-record 103-yard kickoff return – was typified by Tampa's time on the field for the bulk of the game's remaining nine minutes.
Leading 19-15, the Buccaneers took two-thirds of the remaining time off the clock in excruciating fashion from the Panthers' perspective. At the start, a Panthers safety courtesy of a holding call in the end zone was wiped out by a late hit call on defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. Then on the subsequent third-and-14, again flirting with giving up a safety, quarterback Jameis Winston hooked up with wide receiver Mike Evans for a 30-yard gain and another set of downs.
Penalties twice more kept the ball with Tampa and kept winding the clock toward zero, but Carolina's defense finally got off the field. Stops behind the line of scrimmage by Kuechly and cornerback Daryl Worley took the Buccaneers out of field goal range, but a positive play on third down dared them to attempt a 51-yard kick – a blessing in disguise because the miss gave Carolina the ball at the 41 with three minutes left.
After nine drama-filled snaps that included a fourth-and-inches conversion by an index card or two, Newton scored the game-winner on a 2-yard run with 35 seconds left. It was more of a scary run than a signature run – but it was one of his most significant runs.
"The idea was to put it on the ground, get them to freeze for a second and then pick it up and score," Rivera said. "The best part is that it didn't ruin my Christmas."
The Panthers most likely won't be home for the national holiday that is the NFL playoffs, with most scenarios sending them on the road for wild card weekend. They'll likely be home for good sooner than later if they play like they did against the Buccaneers, but there's nothing better than learning a lesson while winning – especially while winning your way into the Super Bowl chase.
"I think what it can do is make us realize that we've got to be at our best - especially at this time of year – going forward," Rivera said.
View the top photos from the Panthers vs. Buccaneers game by team photographer, Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez, and second shooter, Jamey Price.