TAMPA, Fla. – The final game of the Panthers' 2016 season came down to a two-point conversion in the final seconds.
A 10-yard touchdown catch by Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans broke a 10-10 tie with 3:13 remaining in the game, but Carolina answered back with the Cam Newton-Kelvin Benjamin connection.
Benjamin skied for a catch over the middle and ran down the sideline for a 47-yard gain to start the drive. Newton, who battled shoulder pain throughout but never left the game, went to him again over the middle for 13 yards on fouth-and-12. On the next play, Benjamin hauled in a 5-yard touchdown.
With 17 seconds left in the game, head coach Ron Rivera went for the win. Newton tried a quick throw to tight end Greg Olsen, but it fell incomplete, and the Panthers fell 17-16 against the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.
"I'm really proud of the way they fought to the very bitter end," said Rivera, whose team finished the season 6-10. "We came here to win the football game. Unfortunately, Greg slipped coming out of the break."
At the start, this looked like a game that would be dictated by the offenses. Tampa Bay took a 3-0 lead with a 33-yard field goal on the opening possession, and Carolina responded by producing one of its best drives of the season.
The Panthers marched 75 yards in six crisp plays, with running back Jonathan Stewart reaching the end zone on a 2-yard run.
The second quarter was scoreless as the defenses asserted themselves. Defensive end Wes Horton erased a Tampa Bay threat by stripping the ball from quarterback Jameis Winston at the Carolina 30-yard line. Defensive tackle Vernon Butler made the recovery.
Graham Gano attempted a 58-yard field goal in the closing seconds, but the kick was well wide, setting up a 76-yard return for wide receiver Adam Humphries that was finally stopped by tight end Ed Dickson as time expired.
The Buccaneers took the lead back on the second play of the second half. Newton was looking for wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. but cornerback Brent Grimes stepped in front of the pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown.
"He's been a top guy in this league. With the type of quickness that he has, and the way he dissects plays, we kind of gave him one," Ginn said.
Gano tied the game at 10 with a 54-yard field goal later in the third quarter, and both teams missed field goal opportunities in the fourth. Roberto Aguayo's 48-yard attempt was blocked by defensive tackle Kawann Short, and Gano missed a 36-yard attempt wide right.
Tampa Bay then scored its first offensive touchdown, driving 74 yards in eight plays. The Buccaneers didn't face a single third down, and on second-and-goal, Winston extended the play and found his Pro Bowl receiver Evans in the end zone.
"Kind of like all season long, we just didn't play well enough to win," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "We gave up a drive in the fourth quarter for them to take the lead and ultimately win the game.
"We have to do a better job executing in the fourth quarter. That's essentially what our season came down to."
View game action photos from Carolina's 17-16 loss to Tampa Bay.