TAMPA, Fla. -- Four interceptions, including a pair in the fourth quarter when the Panthers were driving to possibly tie the game, proved too much for Carolina to overcome in a 24-17 loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday.
The Buccaneers had just three interceptions entering the game but more than doubled the team's season output to send Cam Newton and Co. to a fourth consecutive defeat. Once 6-2, the Panthers fell to 6-6.
Tampa also sacked Newton four times, including one by defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul on Carolina's third drive to cross midfield in the final frame. That sack on a third-and-5 forced Carolina to go for it on fourth down, and Newton overshot receiver Devin Funchess, who returned after sitting out Week 12 with a back injury, deep over the middle.
The Panthers got the ball back at their own 26-yard line with 1:05 to go and no timeouts left but ran out of time.
“At the end of the day, you give yourself a chance. You fight to the very end," said head coach Ron Rivera. "The last few games we’ve played have come down to the last opportunities we’ve had, whether it be on offense or defense. We just got to make a play and that’s unfortunately something that we haven’t been able to do right now. Make a play when it matters.”
Tampa led 17-7 at the half before Carolina closed the gap early in the second half. After an offensive holding call nullified a 9-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Funchess, kicker Graham Gano converted from 37 yards out to cut the deficit to 17-10.
Soon after, running back Peyton Barber ended a lengthy Bucs drive – marred by penalties on both teams - with a 1-yard punch into the end zone to jump the lead to 14.
Carolina followed with an impressive 10-play, 92-yard scoring drive. An 18-yard Christian McCaffrey rush complemented an efficient Newton, who hit five different targets for 63 yards. Funchess ended the series with a 10-yard catch, inching Carolina within 24-17 near the end of the third.
Newton finished 28-of-41 for 300 yards and two touchdowns, but his four interceptions tied a career high he set in 2011. McCaffrey added 106 yards on 10 carries, and nine receptions for 55 yards and a score. Tight end Greg Olsen left early in the second quarter after re-injuring his foot and didn't return.
For the Buccaneers, quarterback Jameis Winston threw for 249 yards and two touchdowns on 20-of-30 completions, adding 48 rushing yards. Barber ran for 45 rushing yards and a score while wideout Chris Godwin - starting in place of the injured DeSean Jackson - finished with 101 receiving yards and caught one of Winston's touchdown passes. The other went to wide receiver Adam Humphries, who had 61 receiving yards. Like in Week 9, receiver Mike Evans was held scoreless, but he ended with 48 receiving yards.
The Panthers found themselves in a 10-0 hole early after two Bucs scoring drives. Humphries - a key factor in the first meeting - hauled in a 3-yard pass from Winston to give Tampa an early 7-0 lead on its opening series.
Facing third-and-16 after Bucs linebacker Kevin Minter earned his first sack of 2018, Newton's pass to rookie wideout DJ Moore bounced off his arms and into the hands of safety Andrew Adams for a 16-yard return. A few plays later, Bucs kicker Cairos Santos nailed a 35-yarder to increase the lead.
A huge 53-yard rush by McCaffrey set the table for a Carolina scoring opportunity, which McCaffrey secured after catching an 8-yard pass from Newton. A quick Bucs series brought the offense back out, but another Newton sack ended the first quarter.
Godwin connected with Winston for a 48-yard pass early in the second, but the drive was halted after Barber's fumble at the goal line was recovered by linebacker Luke Kuechly for a touchback.
Despite the extra chance, two offensive penalties pushed Carolina deep into its own territory, forcing a punt. The defense stepped up with back-to-back sacks on Winston, setting the stage for a Panthers drive to end the half. Carolina built steam with a pair of Newton runs and an 11-yard completion to McCaffrey, but Newton threw his second interception of the day with 1:05 remaining.
Tampa capitalized with a five-play, 32-yard touchdown drive to end the half up 17-7.
With their postseason hopes diminishing, the Panthers' next chance to end the skid will come next Sunday when they travel to take on the Browns (4-7-1).