CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Even before the season, when you looked at the Bucs' schedule, this game seemed like it was waiting for a big fat letter L next to it. In other words, a sure-fire loss.
A Monday night? On the road? Against the defending NFC champs? No way.
Yet, as this game unfolded, it was absolutely there for the taking for Tampa Bay. And that's just what the Bucs did. They took it.
It wasn't pretty. It wasn't crisp or clean or tidy. But it's a win, something the Bucs desperately needed after coming in with a three-game losing streak.
Beat up by injuries, especially up front on defense, Tampa Bay played with heart and grit and the result was a victory. Suddenly, a 2-3 record doesn't look all that bad when you consider how it looked surely set up to be 1-4. And, it's always easier to go into a bye week with a win than a loss.
Here's a look back with some random thoughts from Monday night's 17-14 last-second victory.
• Like we said, it wasn't pretty. The Bucs could have gone into halftime with a 21-0 lead. Or, maybe, 17-0. Heck, at the very least, a 13-0 lead. Instead, what was it? Only 6-0. That's what happens when you settle for field-goal attempts instead of touchdowns and you miss field goals instead of making them. Then, wham bam, just six minutes into the second half, the Bucs were trailing 7-6.
• The Bucs will miss injured running back Charles Sims, for sure. But not as the featured back. With Doug Martin out, Tampa Bay's best option is Jacquizz Rodgers. Sims is good as a third-down, pass-catching, occasional change-of-pace back, but Rodgers is more suited to pound the rock. He pounded it for 101 yards Monday. The offense runs much smoother with Rodgers replacing Martin. Of course, no one really replaces Martin. The best hope for the Bucs offense to get back into gear is with Martin back in action. Until then, Rodgers was pretty darn good.
• Roberto Aguayo's struggles continue. The kicker — you know he was a second-round pick, right? — missed two easy field goals. The first from 33 yards would have given the Bucs a 6-0 lead in the second quarter. Granted, the Bucs should have punched in a touchdown on that drive. (They took over at the Carolina 30 after recovering a muffed punt.) But when you line up for a 33-yarder, that has to be automatic. Especially for a second-round pick. Unfortunately, nothing is automatic with Aguayo. But the killer was a 46-yard miss with 3:33 left that would have given Tampa Bay a 17-14 lead. He was drafted specifically to make those kicks. And he missed. Unacceptable.
Unless he makes a winner, right?
• Carolina quarterback Derek Anderson, filling in for the injured Cam Newton, had way too much time to throw the ball Monday, and that's something the Bucs will need to fix. Then again, hard to jump on the Bucs for failing to generate much of a rush. Gerald McCoy is hurt. Robert Ayers is hurt. Still, Mike Smith's defense didn't do a whole lot to put pressure on the backup QB.
• A missing piece to the Bucs puzzle this season has been takeaways. Not so Monday. The Bucs had four takeaways — twice as many as they had coming in — and that, as much as anything, sparked Tampa Bay's victory. The biggest of all? Cornerback Brent Grimes picking an Anderson pass in the end zone with the scored tied at 14 and 8:39 left. The only nit? The four takeaways resulted in only three points. On the positive side, it did stop the Panthers from scoring.
• Great final drive. Started off conservative. Then showed some real guts. Final total: 11 plays, 66 yards in the final 1:49. That's gutsy stuff.