TAMPA — In a day full of mistakes and misses, the play that knocked the air out of the Bucs on Sunday came early in the third quarter, when Tampa Bay, trailing by just seven, forced a fumble by Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart, only to see the ball pop into the hands of TE Ed Dickson, who rumbled 57 yards for a touchdown.
"You create a fumble and you expect it to be a big play for your defense, and it turns out to be a big play for them," S Chris Conte said. "I guess that's just the way things went for us."
The ball popped out and caromed off the helmet of Bucs LB Kwon Alexander and into Dickson's hands. It was the longest offensive fumble return for a touchdown in the NFL since 2003, when Keenan McCardell went 57 yards for the Bucs.
"That was a freak play," Alexander said. "I knew the ball was out of (Stewart's) hands. I just looked, and the dude was just running."
Bucs WR Mike Evans called it an "unlucky break" said he "had never seen a play like that before. Y'all know what I'm talking about."
For Bucs DT Gerald McCoy, it was an example of how even the things that went right went wrong in the 37-23 loss. "We all ran to the ball, but it bounced literally forward, and (Dickson) just caught it in stride," McCoy said. "It was just weird. Stuff like that just didn't go our way."
BRINDZA DONE? Rookie K Kyle Brindza got a vote of confidence from coach Lovie Smith last week after he missed three field goals and an extra point in the loss at Houston. But after two costly missed field goals Sunday and another missed point after, the Bucs may make a change.
"I didn't make my kicks," Brindza said. "We're all living day by day right now. … Today's a horrible day, just like last week. I have to somehow get over this."
THIRD DOWN BETTER: The Bucs went 1-for-12 on third downs in the loss at Houston but took a big step forward Sunday, converting 8 of 16 opportunities.
QB Jameis Winston, who went 2 for 12 passing on third down against the Texans, was much better, going 10-for-13 for 11 yards and a touchdown. He also had two interceptions by the Panthers CB Josh Norman on third down — one was returned for a touchdown — but overall he moved the chains much more regularly for the offense.
CENTURY MARK: RB Doug Martin finished with 106 yards on 20 carries, going over 100 yards for only the second time in his past 19 games. He had his first touchdown since November and a 26-yard run that is his longest this season.
THIS AND THAT: DE Will Gholston got his first start of the season and played well, with a tackle for loss, a pass defended and three total tackles. DE George Johnson, demoted from a starting role, had just one assisted tackle. … Former USF star Mike Jenkins had his first start, taking over for injured CB Johnthan Banks. He slipped and was beaten on WR Ted Ginn's first touchdown and finished with only one tackle and two passes defended. … Turns out that Jared Allen wasn't the big newcomer for the Panthers at defensive end. Instead, it was rookie Ryan Delaire — signed by the Bucs after the draft but dropped in final cuts — who had two sacks in his NFL debut.
Contact Greg Auman at email@example.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.