CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers clinched a berth in the NFC playoffs for the fourth time in five years, defeating NFC South rival Tampa Bay 22-19 in their home finale at Bank of America Stadium.
"It's one of those things that you talk about in the beginning of the season; you want to be playing in January at the end of the year," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "We can cross that one off."
Despite struggling to move the ball for the majority of the game, with three minutes remaining, quarterback Cam Newton led the Panthers to its first victory when trailing after three quarters since 2015.
"For us, we knew what we were capable of," Newton said. "We just wanted to get in a rhythm and find a way to gain some cushion. They didn't allow us to do that, and that's what it's all about. Just find a way. We did that in the end."
Carolina took over at its own 41-yard line after the Buccaneers kicker Patrick Murray missed a 51-yard field goal attempt. Newton jumpstarted the drive by connecting with wide receiver Brenton Bersin for 23 yards and wide receiver Kaelin Clay for another 13 – his first reception of the day.
Later, a 5-yard completion to tight end Greg Olsen moved the Panthers to the 5-yard line, but the tight end fell short of the first down marker, forcing fourth down. After Tampa's fourth offsides of the day moved Carolina closer, running back Jonathan Stewart barely picked up inches need, setting up a first-and-goal at the 2 with 38 seconds left.
Newton fumbled the ensuing snap, but he picked up his mistake and barreled into the end zone for the game-winning score – Carolina's only offensive touchdown of the game.
"That was on the two-yard line? That's crazy," Newton said after celebrating his son Chosen's second birthday with the touchdown. "I almost gave it up. Just the element of surprise."
The Buccaneers possessed a final chance to answer with 35 seconds remaining, but defensive tackle Kawann Short sacked Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, forcing a fumble. Defensive end Julius Peppers recovered the loose ball, initiating victory formation.
"It was an ugly win," Short said. "We knew we needed to take care of business. At the end of the day we got the job done."
Carolina entered the game ranked third in red zone touchdown percentage since the last meeting with the Buccaneers – 17-of-24 – and boasted the best rushing attack in the NFL. However, the Buccaneers didn't receive the memo.
Until the final drive, the Panthers' offense never moved out of first gear, finishing with the second-lowest yardage total of the season (255). In spite of winning the turnover battle, the Panthers settled for three red zone field goals, the first one setting a tone that proved hard to shake. Defensive end Wes Horton forced a strip-sack that defensive end Bryan Cox recovered. With momentum on their side, the offense took over at Tampa Bay's 33-yard line but settled for a 25-yard Graham Gano field goal.
Following a second Gano field goal, wide receiver Damiere Byrd broke the trend on the brink of halftime, returning a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown – the first Panthers' kickoff return for a touchdown since Nov. 11, 2011.
"Saved us," head coach Ron Rivera said of the kickoff return and special teams. "There were some things that we didn't do very well as an offense or defense until the very end when we had to.
"That's one of the things that I'm at least pleased with when we needed to make a stop, we needed to knock them back, we did. Then we had to drive the ball all the way down, we did. That's huge. We gave ourselves the chance to win the game."
With the win, the Panthers secured a berth in the playoffs and still have a chance to capture the division title. If Carolina defeats Atlanta next Sunday and Tampa Bay knocks off New Orleans, the Panthers would finish atop the NFC South.
"It's an interesting position because again obviously, if we win and depending on what happened with some other people we can knock somebody out," Rivera said. "If we win and something crazy happens with New Orleans, I think we win the division. There is still a chance. There is still hope. Sometimes that's all we need."