It's difficult to argue that it would have changed the result, but the Bucs were left in a precarious position Saturday with the loss of starting DTs Brian Price and Albert Haynesworth, who missed the game with injuries.
Price has had a pair of sore ankles for weeks, and Haynesworth has been slowed by knee pain.
That left the middle of the defense manned by backups Roy Miller and Frank Okam. The lone backup — there usually are two because the team uses a rotation — was Jovan Haye, signed as a free agent last week.
"You prepare yourself to always be ready to play," Okam said. "Obviously injuries have hurt us a lot this year on the defensive line. (Price and Haynesworth) were battling through practice … trying to play, so you knew there was a chance they wouldn't play. So you have to be ready.
"We had three defensive tackles (Saturday). That's all we had, so you have to roll with it. Normally you have at least four. The numbers just weren't in our favor, but there are no excuses. We have to control the running game better."
Carolina rushed for 270 yards, the most against the Bucs this season.
If the Bucs intend to compete for the NFC South title again, they first are going to have to find a way to slow a young man who has made it known he'll be a fixture in the division for years to come. • Carolina rookie QB Cam Newton was impressive again Saturday, accounting for four touchdowns — three passing, one rushing. If you're counting, Newton has eight touchdowns in two games against the Bucs; he rushed for three and threw for one in Tampa on Dec. 4. • And, as he did against Tampa Bay earlier this month, Newton set a record, surpassing Peyton Manning's NFL rookie passing yardage mark of 3,739. Newton, who has 3,893 passing yards, set the NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a season in his previous game against the Bucs. • "He's a big, talented guy," Bucs CB Ronde Barber said of the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner out of Auburn. "The same things he did in college, he's doing now. We have to deal with it twice a year." • Particularly difficult to stop is the Panthers' package of college-style running plays that take advantage of Newton's running ability with option and counter runs. Those plays, particularly the counter, often worked flawlessly Saturday. The Bucs defended the option decently in the teams' first meeting, so the Panthers adjusted. • "Our ends did a pretty good job of closing in on the option, so then they came with the counter," DE Da'Quan Bowers said. "We reacted too slowly, and it hurt us." • Then there was the simple play in which Newton ran for a 49-yard touchdown. He faked a handoff to RB DeAngelo Williams, darted up the middle of the defense, where interior defensive linemen were being shoved aside, and outran the secondary into the end zone. • When Newton has the ball in a situation in which he is a multiple threat — to run, pass or pitch — discipline is essential for the defense. The Bucs had a sore lack of it, and numerous players ended up out of position at the wrong times. • "You have to believe that the guy next to you is going to do his job," Barber said. "And we're a young football team that doesn't buy in all the time, and it shows on film, and it shows on the scoreboard. It's frustrating." • Said LB Dekoda Watson: "We can sit here and say he threw a perfect pass or this or that, but if we're not executing, there's no point in sitting here getting mad about it. It's all on us."
. LeGarrette Blount's fumble on the Bucs' first offensive play made it easier for Tampa Bay to do something that arguably was long overdue. It went to an uptempo, and sometimes no-huddle, offensive attack using RBs Kregg Lumpkin and Mossis Madu, and the shotgun formation.
The tactic worked. The Bucs embarked on a 15-play, 80-yard drive in which QB Josh Freeman completed 7 of 8 passes for 53 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown to Arrelious Benn in the second quarter.
"We came into (last) week wanting to do, not really a no-huddle, but to speed things up," Lumpkin said. "So that's what we ended up doing, and it worked for a while. It was just keeping us out on the field and not letting the defense change personnel and calling the plays that were open to us."
Lumpkin had seven carries for 24 yards and four catches for 38 yards. Madu had 20 yards rushing on four carries and 42 receiving yards on four receptions.
It was a different look for the offense. It didn't last. "We had everything going there, dictating what (Carolina) could do on defense, and we had something going," coach Raheem Morris said.
. The box score says QB Josh Freeman, not RB LeGarrette Blount, fumbled the botched handoff on the Bucs' first play from scrimmage, helping stake the Panthers to a 10-0 lead. But everything else pointed to Blount as the culprit, including Blount. "I fumbled it," Blount said when asked about the play. "I fumbled it. It was a miscommunication. We fumbled the ball." Judging by the coaching staff's reaction — benching Blount for the remainder of the first half — it thought the running back was guilty. Blount had four fumbles in the previous five games before Saturday, and he knows his inability to hang on to the ball is going to be scrutinized. He said the coaches' response was expected and appropriate. "Whenever something is not going your way, you have to look somewhere else," he said. "When your back's been giving up the football the whole season, you have to find somebody else to do the job." The Bucs went with Kregg Lumpkin and Mossis Madu for the balance of the first half. Blount returned for the first series of the second half.
Just when the Bucs had sliced Carolina's lead to 10-7 in the second quarter with their most impressive drive in weeks (15 plays, 80 yards, taking up 9 minutes, 20 seconds), the Bucs were gutted by — you guessed it — another big play. • In what has become a theme this season, the Bucs gave up a long touchdown, this time the longest of them all. QB Cam Newton found WR Brandon LaFell against single coverage and hit him for a 91-yard touchdown. It was the 11th completion this season of longer than 40 yards allowed by Tampa Bay. • LaFell, defended by CB E.J. Biggers, was the recipient of a precise delivery from Newton, who placed the ball in the perfect spot for LaFell. It didn't help that Biggers didn't attempt to disrupt the pass. • "I just didn't make a play on the ball," Biggers said. "I undercut (the receiver), and (Newton) threw it over my head." • To be fair, Biggers had no safety help. The Bucs had a single deep safety on the play, Tanard Jackson, but he jumped on an uncovered underneath receiver, leaving Biggers in single coverage. Jackson spent much of the remainder of the first half on the bench. • The play and ensuing extra point extended Carolina's lead to 17-7, and the Panthers never looked back.
. The Bucs tried to beat the Panthers at their own game, pulling out a trick play from deep in offensive coordinator Greg Olson's playbook.
With the Panthers gaining a reputation for razzle dazzle, the Bucs tried some, but it backfired.
QB Josh Freeman handed the ball to WR Micheal Spurlock on an end around, but Spurlock didn't take the ball down the field. He stopped behind the line of scrimmage and threw a lateral to Freeman, who then fired to TE Kellen Winslow for a 22-yard gain.
Then things fell to pieces. Winslow, while attempting to hurdle a defender, was hit in midair by a second defender and fumbled. A scramble ensued, and Carolina DT Andre Neblett recovered. Adding to the frustration was an unnecessary roughness penalty against Bucs TE Luke Stocker, who was deemed to have dived into the pile late. The call gave the Panthers an extra 15 yards, placing the ball at the Carolina 39. Six plays later, the Panthers scored to make it 34-10 in the third. Oh, and there was a clipping penalty on T Jeremy Trueblood that would've wiped out the play anyway.
. Bucs CB Ronde Barber, left, played in his 224th game as a Buccaneer, tying former LB Derrick Brooks for most in franchise history. He can set the record by playing in next week's season finale against the Falcons. It was also his 198th consecutive start, tops among active NFL players, and his 223rd consecutive game played, second to Minnesota K Ryan Longwell (239).
. Tampa Bay's 80-yard scoring drive in the first half was the longest of the season in number of plays (15) and clock time (9:20).
. Arrelious Benn's touchdown catch in the first quarter was his third of the season and the fifth of his career.
. Kellen Winslow has 211 receptions as a Buc, moving him past Ron Hall (209) for second most by a tight end in team history. Jimmie Giles is first with 279.
. Connor Barth's 42-yard field goal makes him 25-of-27 on the season with a league-leading streak of 14 in a row.