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Carolina Panthers

What We Learned: Panthers at Buccaneers

1. Panthers fought until the end: As wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. walked into the locker room following a disappointing end to a disappointing season, he applauded his teammates' effort and encouraged them to keep their heads up.

"This shows the type of players that we have, the type of men that we have, the type of coaching staff that we have," Ginn said. "No matter how it looks, no matter how it plays out, we have a lot of fighters in here."

Head coach Ron Rivera said much the same to his team after a one-point loss in a season filled with narrow losses.

"These guys competed. They played to win, tried to win to the very end," Rivera said. "That's all I can ask from them."

Ginn certainly went out fighting in what he hopes won't be his final game with the Panthers. The potential unrestricted free agent finished a season in which he was Carolina's most consistent receiver by catching four balls for 69 yards and rushing for 24 yards on two attempts.

"We have a lot of guys that are willing to get better and work as hard as they can," Ginn said. "As long as we still have that, the sky is the limit."

2. Benjamin finishes strong: An up-and-down season for wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin ended on a high note, a final push that Rivera believes can foretell of things to come.

"Kelvin seems to have turned and is back to form," Rivera said. "It took time for him to get healthy, to get 100 percent, but he did some good things for us."

On the game's final drive, with the Panthers needing a touchdown, Benjamin emphatically started the drive and finished it – though a failed two-point try still left Carolina short at 17-16. On the first play of the drive, quarterback Cam Newton hit Benjamin in stride over the middle for a 47-yard catch and run. Later, on fourth-and-12 at the 18, Benjamin made a tough 13-yard grab over the middle and then followed that immediately with a 5-yard touchdown with 17 seconds left.

"That's the connection we're really looking for," Rivera said.

It was an uneven year for Benjamin coming off a season lost to a knee injury, yet he still paced Carolina's wide receivers in catches with 57 and yards with 848, and he led the team with six receiving touchdowns.

3. Byrd takes flight: While Ginn and Benjamin finished strong, wide receiver Damiere Byrd started strong. Making his NFL debut, the second-year receiver recorded his first reception with a 16-yarder over the middle late in the third quarter.

"It was a run-pass option, and when the safety rolled down, I knew I had a good chance of getting it thrown to me," Byrd said. "It just happened so fast that I didn't really think about it at first, but then when I got to the sideline, I was pretty pumped about it. The receiving corps was excited for me as well.

"It was a great way for me to start the new year. No matter how comfortable you might think you are because of playing preseason games, it's a totally different ballgame on Sundays. This was a big deal for me."


4. Mayo makes impact: Second-year linebacker David Mayo had seen plenty of snaps before Sunday but predominantly on special teams. But after A.J. Klein started at middle linebacker for the sixth consecutive game in place of Luke Kuechly, Mayo took over and played the majority of the game. Mayo, in fact, said he played more defensive snaps Sunday that he had in his entire NFL career, and he took advantage by finishing second on the team with seven tackles.

"I was really stoked to get in there and finally play some defense and play for majority of the game. That was a huge opportunity for me and a great learning experience," Mayo said. "I think I handled it well. Everyone did a great job helping me. Overall, I think it was a good day."

Mayo and Byrd were among a lot list of young players Rivera cited after the game.

"David Mayo got to get on the football field and made some things happened, and the two corners continued to compete," Rivera said. "(Defensive end) Larry Webster got an opportunity to get out there and run around – really excited about that. He did some good things, and (Wes) Horton continues to be steady Eddie. Vernon (Butler) did a nice job, and really a lot of the young guys. It bodes well for who we are.

"On offense, Tyler Larsen battled at center for us, and Daryl Williams continues to develop as a mauler as a run blocker, and he's getting better and better in pass protection. Damiere Byrd getting his opportunity and Brenton Bersin competing – that's what you want to see at a time like this."

5. Gano has one of those days: Kicker Graham Gano isn't one to make excuses and didn't have his best stuff Sunday, but it also wasn't the best set of circumstances for success, either.

Gano drilled a 54-yarder but missed three other field goals. A 58-yarder at the end of the half was a long shot – especially with him dealing with a broken bone in his plant foot. His timing had to be disrupted on a 45-yard attempt in the first half that was held up for about a minute at the line of scrimmage because of some audio feedback from the public address system. But more than any other, there's little doubt he'd most like to have back a 36-yarder that sailed just wide right in the second half.

"It was a frustrating day," Gano said. "I had been having a solid year statistically up to today, so it was definitely a frustrating day. It was a poor performance. I have to play better than that."

Gano said he'd have to get his foot "fixed" in the offseason, possibly via surgery, after snapping a bone in his heel in Week 14.

"It's my job to go out there and kick. Everybody has aches and pains and injuries this time of year," Gano said. "We've done a good job of managing it. It's something I've just had to play through."

View game action photos from Carolina's 17-16 loss to Tampa Bay.

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