TAMPA, Fla. — The longest regular season in Panthers' history has come to a close, the way so many games this year did.
The Panthers played well for stretches, eventually yielded on defense, and dropped a 41-17 decision to the Buccaneers to close the 2021 regular season with a 5-12 record.
After a 3-0 start this year, the Panthers finished by losing seven straight and 12 out of their last 14, making the first 17-game season in league history one to forget.
Now, they enter an offseason of uncertainty, armed with cap room and the sixth overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, but plenty of questions to answer.
They need an offensive coordinator after the midseason firing of Joe Brady, and they're looking for a long-term answer at quarterback and most of an offensive line.
They're faced with numerous free-agent decisions, beginning with quarterback Cam Newton, cornerbacks Donte Jackson and Stephon Gilmore, and top pass-rusher Haason Reddick.
But mostly, they need to find an identity on offense, as they struggled once Christian McCaffrey was injured. Since McCaffrey has played in just 10 games the last two seasons, that's made it hard for them to find one. Most teams without their best player will struggle, but without him on the field, moving the ball has been a consistent slog.
That was the case Sunday, as other than the consistent production of DJ Moore (who topped 1,100 yards for the third straight season), and the steady play of right tackle Taylor Moton, it's clear that side of the ball needs more building blocks.
— As far as the game, the Panthers led for most of the first half, but Tom Brady did a Tom Brady thing just before halftime, leading Tampa Bay on an eight-play, 92-yard touchdown drive, and taking a 10-7 lead into the break. Once Brady added a seven-play, 77-yard touchdown drive to start the second half, it was effectively in hand for the playoff-bound Bucs.
— The Panthers had a moderately productive first half, with one big exception.
Sam Darnold was a clean 14-of-19 for 118 yards and a touchdown, but was stopped short on his fourth-and-1 sneak from the Buccaneers 2-yard line.
It seemed like a reasonable place to use Newton, who was in for a play earlier in the game, handing off to tight end Tommy Tremble.
But the Panthers stuck with Darnold, who had five rushing touchdowns earlier this year. It didn't work, even after they challenged the spot.
— It was kind of a YOLO day, with the Panthers going for fourth downs in their own territory, and letting wide receiver Brandon Zylstra throw a third-down pass. It was incomplete, leaving him short of his cameo as a backup kicker in Buffalo earlier this year.
— The Panthers started their 13th offensive line in 17 games, with veteran right guard John Miller a healthy scratch.
Veteran Trent Scott started in his place, but rookie Deonte Brown came on in the second quarter. The massive sixth-rounder from Alabama looked solid when he was in there, and offers an option for the future. The Panthers are expected to spend considerably on linemen, plural, this offseason.
— The Panthers were stretched thin in the secondary, and it got worse during the game.
Veteran cornerback Rashaan Melvin left in the first half with a head injury, and didn't return.
The Panthers were also without starting safety Jeremy Chinn, and veteran Juston Burris was limited to special teams.
View photos from the field as the Panthers take on Tampa Bay in the season finale.