Another week on the road. Another dominant performance by the Panthers defense. Another 17-3 final score.
And this time, unlike previous time, the Panthers were the team on the positive end of the score.
One week after the Panthers smothered a struggling Bears offense but got victimized by an oppressive and opportunistic Bears defense that found the end zone twice, Carolina did much the same save actually scoring at Tampa Bay's expense.
The Panthers' defense handled – actually manhandled – a Buccaneers offense much more competent than the one Chicago currently possesses. And while the Panthers' offense didn't exactly set the world on fire, the unit was more effective in its execution and put together enough plays to flip the script.
Some believed Sunday's NFC South matchup in Tampa could be a "get-right game" for Cam Newton and Co., a chance for the offense to carry its weight a week after the Panthers wasted a dominant defensive effort in Chicago. Many also believed, in fact, that the offense would have to assert itself because there was no way Carolina's defense could contain Tampa's offense nearly as well as it had Chicago's.
The Panthers offense didn't "get right" in the way fans might have hoped, but it got the job done. And the Panthers defense repeated the feat from a week earlier – while adding the previous missing element of takeaways to the equation.
Carolina's offense actually set the tone Sunday. A week ago, a methodical game-opening drive went awry when rookie Curtis Samuel couldn't corral a Newton pitch, and the Bears turned it into a 75-yard touchdown the other way. Before halftime the Bears did the same thing a second time, scoring a 76-yard touchdown on an interception return. Carolina's defense never wavered, but its offense never recovered.
Sunday in Tampa, Carolina's second drive of the day looked promising much like the opening march a week earlier, but this time the Panthers closed the deal. A fifth third-down conversion on the possession, a dive over the goal line with the ball extended by Jonathan Stewart, earned the Panthers a 7-0 edge.
That, actually, proved to be all the points the Panthers would need as the defense throttled the NFL's top passing offense. With linebacker Luke Kuechly and safety Kurt Coleman back in the lineup, the defense kept Jameis Winston and Co. out of the end zone. That's what the unit did the previous week against the Bears as well, but this time Carolina also came up with three takeaways – including the team's first two interceptions since the first week of the season. Kuechly got the second one himself to cap the victory, and he recovered a fumble at the end of the first one.
The first interception - early in the fourth quarter - was the beginning of the end for the Buccaneers. Safety Mike Adams' pick, created by cornerback Captain Munnerlyn blitzing and getting a piece of Winston as he let go of the ball, set the stage for Newton and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to hook up for a 25-yard touchdown for a 17-3 cushion with 8:48 left in the game.
The play was the first deep shot out of several of third-and-long shots that actually worked. It was a frustrating day at times for the offense, but obviously not as frustrating as it was for the home-standing Buccaneers. Somewhat like the first two weeks of the season, it was nice for the Panthers to be able to win with the offense not clicking on all cylinders.
Heading to the second half of the schedule, it looks like this defense could give Carolina a chance to win every single Sunday. The offense will continue to grind in hopes of finding its way – and it is a grind with Greg Olsen still out and injuries along the offensive front still a concern.
But a team with this defense and with Newton on offense always has a chance – and it will take its chances with a 17-3 final score.
View photos from Carolina's victory at Tampa Bay.