It was the best of times for the Carolina Panthers through three quarters of Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It became the worst of times and possibly the entire season in the fourth quarter.
The Panthers (2-8) gave up an 11-point lead with six minutes to go in Sunday’s contest, eventually falling to the Bucs in overtime, 27-21.
“My hats off to Carolina,” said Bucs coach Greg Schiano. “They played a heck of a ball game. They played extremely hard. Cam (Newton) didn’t turn the ball over. All the things we really needed to happen, we weren’t getting them. Our guys kept fighting, even though it wasn’t coming off to plan. That’s a good lesson.”
Carolina coach Ron Rivera said Sunday’s loss is one of his toughest as head coach.
“This one ranks at the top,” Rivera said. “This is about as bad as it gets.”
It was the first overtime game for the Panthers since Dec. 21, 2008.
Carolina falls to 5-10 overall in overtime games in franchise history.
“It’s always hard after a loss,” said Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. “Obviously, we don’t go into each and every game wanting to lose.”
The Panthers haven’t won an overtime game since defeating the San Francisco, 25-22, on Nov. 18, 2011 at the old Ericsson Stadium.
Despite falling behind 10-0 in the first half of Sunday’s game, Carolina rallied to take a 14-10 halftime lead with strong play on both sides of the ball.
Defensive back Captain Munnerlyn made up for an earlier fumble on a punt return by intercepting Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman and returning it 74 yards for the Panthers’ first score.
Later in the first quarter, running back Jonathan Stewart added a one-yard TD plunge to give Carolina a four-point halftime cushion.
“I thought we did some really good things, but we’ll go back, look at them and find out that there were too many plays that we missed, whether it be on the defensive side or the offensive side” Rivera said. “We missed some tackles. We missed some coverage opportunities. You look at some of the runs we missed. Again, we can’t give up negative plays. You can’t put yourself in 2nd-and-12 or 2nd-and-13. We did it to ourselves.”
Following a scoreless back-and-forth third quarter, the Panthers scored on a 29-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Brandon LaFell to go up 21-20 with six minutes left in the game.
LaFell finished the game with five catches for 93 receiving yards, while Newton completed 16-of-29 passes for 252 yards.
The Panthers appeared poised for their third win of the season, but a series of unfortunate events prevented that from happening.
Tampa Bay netted three points on its next drive with a Connor Barth 40-yard field goal, and Carolina got the ball back with 4:03 left on the clock trying to melt away the final time in order to preserve the victory.
Despite two early first downs to start the drive, the Panthers stalled on their third set of downs. Brad Nortman punted out of the end zone, giving the Buccaneers a chance to capitalize with the ball at their own 20 with just over a minute left in the game.
In just 50 seconds, though, the Buccaneers drove 80 yards in seven plays, scoring on a 24-yard pass from Freeman to Vincent Jackson.
A two-point conversion catch by Jackson later, and the teams were headed into overtime.
Tampa Bay won the toss, elected to receive and promptly took the ball on another 80-yard drive for a score to win the game. Freeman connected with tight end Dallas Clark for the game-winning 15-yard score.
“It was a team effort at the end,” Freeman said. “Guys just laying it out on the line and making plays to find a way to have the opportunity to win. As a team, nobody lost faith and nobody lost confidence. We just kept playing to the final whistle. It feels good to escape this one with a win.”
Schiano said all wins are satisfying, but Sunday’s was plain fun.
“It’s rewarding to those guys in (the locker room),” he said. “I think it just gives credence to what we keep working on. It’s so hard to win in the National Football League. Every win is great.”
The Panthers are used to heartbreak by now, Newton said, so they must continue to move forward with the rest of their season.
“That is the story of our lives, but we’ve got to think positive at this point going forward and moving on,” he said. “The past is the past. This game right now is officially in the past. We’ve got to keep going, working and focusing on how we can make personal goals for everybody to get better.”
Rivera said his team has a lot of improvement to make.
“We’ve got to learn, grow and get better,” he said. “If we figure that part out of it, we are going to win football games. If not, this is what we are going to have to suffer through.”
Carolina is on the road two-straight weeks, including games at Philadelphia (3-7) and Kansas City (1-9), before returning to Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 9 to host the NFC South-leading Atlanta Falcons (9-1).