TAMPA, Fla. – One minute, the players were pelted with rain. One minute, they were pelted with sunshine.
"Mother Nature threw us a wrench," quarterback Cam Newton said.
Fortunately, the Panthers were the ones wielding the tools for success.
On a Sunday afternoon filled with weather patterns that would make a meteorologist swear, the Panthers continued to trump most preseason forecasts, improving to 4-0 with a 37-23 triumph over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"That is definitely a formula for the success," said safety Kurt Coleman, who came away with one of the defense's five takeaways that led to 27 points. "We gave our offense extra possessions, and they're getting better and better.
"I love it when they just run the ball, run the ball and then pop a nice pass. Ted Ginn is really starting to come into his own right now."
Ginn caught two touchdown passes, tight end Ed Dickson scored on a fluky but heads-up fumble recovery that typified the day, and the defense took care of the rest.
"When you get big turnovers like our defense gave to us today, you have to come away with points," Ginn said. "That's what we did."
The defense didn't even need the offense on the first of four interceptions coaxed out of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston. The No. 1 overall draft choice lost a fumble on the game's second play to set up the first of three Graham Gano field goals for a 3-0 lead. On Tampa's next possession, cornerback Josh Norman – the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September – started building his case for October by picking off a pass and streaking 46 yards untouched for his second touchdown of the season and a 10-0 lead.
"Josh made a good read," head coach Ron Rivera said of Norman, who added another interception in the second half – his NFL-leading fourth of the season. "He showed great vision on the play."
The Buccaneers answered with a field goal, but early in the second quarter, defensive tackle Kawann Short deflected a Winston pass at the line to set up Coleman for a diving interception in Tampa Bay territory. That set up Ginn for a 6-yard score on third-and-goal for a 17-3 lead.
The Buccaneers showed some life after a sloppy start, driving 80 yards to pull within 17-10 on a 5-yard touchdown run by Doug Martin with 4:23 left in the first half. They got the ball back and drove down to the 11-yard line in the closing seconds, but rookie kicker Kyle Brindza missed a 29-yard field goal.
The off-and-on rain was pouring to start the second half, and on the first snap, running back Jonathan Stewart fumbled trying to secure a Newton handoff. The Buccaneers recovered at the 25, but four plays later Brindza slipped on a 43-yard attempt that missed the mark.
"It was definitely a weird game," said linebacker Thomas Davis, who accounted for the Panthers' fourth and final interception, "and the weather element had a lot to do with that."
The weirdest was yet to come.
Stewart fumbled on the very next snap, too, but the ball popped up into the waiting arms of Dickson, who took off for a 57-yard touchdown and a 24-10 lead that seemed to sap hope from the Buccaneers sideline.
"Anytime you get a play like that, it really swings the momentum," Rivera said. "They felt they had an opportunity, but something like that takes the wind out of your sails."
If that wasn't enough, Norman followed with his second interception on Tampa Bay's next drive, returning it 34 yards to the Tampa 33. Five plays later, on third-and-3 from the 12, Newton hit Ginn crossing over the middle for a catch and run to the right corner of the end zone, extending Carolina's lead to 31-10 midway through the third quarter.
"Ted is really evolving into that player that he's capable of becoming," Newton said.
The same could be said of the Panthers, who won going away despite 124 passing yards from Newton and a 167-yard deficit in total offense.
"It's nice to be in the situation we are, and we still feel like we can really improve as a football team," Rivera said. "We'll look at some things during the bye week. We've still got a long road ahead of us."
View game action photos from Carolina's 37-23 win over Tampa Bay.