CHARLOTTE – In all three homes games against NFC South opponents this season, the Carolina Panthers failed to take anywhere close to full advantage of their scoring opportunities.
"That's going to beat us down the road," tight end Greg Olsen said.
But it didn't beat them Sunday, and in the NFC South a victory no matter how you get it is worth its weight in gold. Carolina's 19-17 squeaker over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers vaulted the Panthers into first place for at least the next 24 hours.
"Somebody said I was going to throw four touchdown passes. I said, 'Buddy, I don't care how many I throw,' " quarterback Derek Anderson said. "If it goes across the goal line and we get points, I'm happy. If you win by 40 or you win by two, it doesn't matter."
Carolina only got the ball across the goal line once, when Anderson hit Jerricho Cotchery for a 2-yard touchdown after the defense set the offense up on the doorstep early in the second half. But kicker Graham Gano booted the ball through the uprights four times, and while several of those were unsatisfying at the time, they added up to just enough.
The win, combined with Atlanta's 27-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, put the Panthers (5-8-1) atop the division race at least until the New Orleans Saints (5-8) visit the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football.
"It's a race, but we play Cleveland next. That will be the focus," head coach Ron Rivera said, somewhat reminiscent of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's infamous "onto Cincinnati" mantra earlier this season. "We got a big one today in the division, but now we've got Cleveland.
"We've got to get things going in the right direction. We can't put ourselves behind the eight-ball when we get in the red zone. We can't have penalties. There are things we've got to correct. You can't kick field goals in this league and expect to win consistently."
Rivera was happy with the win but wasn't happy with how the Panthers won, though he did give credit to Tampa Bay for making things difficult. The Buccaneers fell to 2-12, but Sunday's setback was their eighth one-score loss.
"Everyone looks at Tampa Bay's record, but when we looked at the tape, we didn't see 2-11," Cotchery said. "A lot of the areas where we didn't do as well as we wanted to, they played a role. Those guys were flying around and hitting. We did a good job of grinding it out and winning a tight ballgame."
Center Ryan Kalil agreed that the Buccaneers made it tough, but he felt the Panthers made it tough on themselves. They obviously weren't as sharp as they were in their 41-10 road grading of the New Orleans Saints a week ago.
"Last week, I thought we played all four quarters. This week, we did a good job in the first half, but we've got to be better in the second half," Kalil said. "We can't do that. We've got to be better if we want to win and close out games."
Though now in first place, the Panthers don't control their playoff destiny. They still need New Orleans to lose one of its remaining three games, but it's still crazy that the Panthers are in this situation – one that seemed highly unlikely following a 31-13 loss at Minnesota two weeks ago that dropped them to 3-8-1.
"After that Minnesota loss, everybody thought the season was over, but we have belief because you never know what can happen," rookie defensive end Kony Ealy said. "We have gotten so many chances, and now it's time to step up and take advantage."