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The Bucs let the last-place Panthers hang around for four quarters before putting away the NFL’s worst team, 21-18 Sunday at Raymond James Stadium to keep pace in the NFC South race.
With the win, just its second in its past eight games, Tampa Bay (5-7) ended a two-game losing streak and stayed a game behind first-place Atlanta (6-6) in the division. New Orleans (5-7) dropped to third based on the head-to-head tiebreaker. Carolina (1-11) was officially eliminated from contention.
Rachaad White and Chris Godwin each ran for touchdowns, and Baker Mayfield threw a scoring pass to Mike Evans, who surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for the 10th straight season to start his career, extending his NFL record.
Tampa Bay, which started the game without its top three inside linebackers, Lavonte David, Devin White and SirVocea Dennis; lost another, K.J. Britt, early in the game. Safety Ryan Neal was pressed into duty at linebacker.
Chuba Hubbard gave Carolina a 10-7 lead, its first of the game, on a 1-yard scoring run with five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
It didn’t last long.
The Bucs retook the lead on the next play from scrimmage, as Mayfield threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to Evans, putting Tampa Bay ahead 14-10. Evans finished with game highs of seven receptions for 162 yards.
Chris Godwin’s 19-yard run early in the fourth quarter extended Tampa Bay’s lead to 21-10. It was the only touch of the game for the receiver, who had no receptions on only three targets.
Carolina pulled within a field goal on Hubbard’s second 1-yard TD run with 5:02 remaining. Two plays earlier, Bryce Young completed a 30-yard pass to DJ Chark on fourth and 8 from the Bucs 38 to keep the drive alive.
Joe Tryon-Shoyinka sacked Young on the Panthers’ two-point conversion attempt, but he was penalized for facemasking. Young picked up the conversion with a 1-yard run around right end on the second attempt.
Antoine Winfield Jr. took away Carolina’s last gasp by intercepting Young on fourth and 1 from the Panthers 40 with just over 2 minutes remaining.
White then preserved the win by bursting 30 yards up the middle on third and 1 from the Carolina 48, allowing Tampa Bay to run out the clock.
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White rushed for 84 yards on 20 carries, an average of 4.2 yards per attempt. Had he not allowed himself to be tackled on his final carry in order to stay in bounds, he might have surpassed 100 yards for the second straight game.
Mayfield completed 14 of 29 passes for 202 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He had Evans wide open down the left sideline in the second quarter, but the wet ball slipped out of his hands, resulting in an underthrown pass that Xavier Woods intercepted.
Young finished 15-for-31 for 178 yards and an interception. Hubbard ran for 104 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, becoming only the second player to rush for 100 or more yards against Tampa Bay this season.
The Bucs opened the scoring on White’s 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. The play was set up by a 40-yard completion from Mayfield to Evans down the right sideline to the Carolina 5.
The Panthers drove to the Bucs 1 early in the second quarter but had to settle for a 23-yard Eddy Piñeiro field goal, narrowing their deficit to 7-3.
Winfield led the Tampa Bay defense with eight tackles, including six solo stops, one sack, two tackles for loss and three passes defensed. J.J. Russell had seven tackles, six unassisted, and one sack. YaYa Diaby also had a sack.
Here’s how it happened.
A big reception by the Bucs’ leading rusher led to a touchdown run by one of the team’s top receivers early in the fourth quarter, extending Tampa Bay’s lead to 11 points.
Running back Rachaad White got things started by turning a short Baker Mayfield pass into a 20-yard gain, giving Tampa Bay a first down at the Carolina 47.
Bucs left tackle Tristan Wirfs limped off the field following the play.
After White ran up the middle for 5 yards, Mayfield overthrew Mike Evans deep down the left sideline, bringing up third and 5 from the 42. But the Panthers’ Yetur Gross-Matos was penalized for illegal use of hands on the play, giving Tampa Bay a first down at the Carolina 38.
White then gained 11 yards around right end, moving the ball to the 27. Runs by Deven Thompkins and Chase Edmonds netted 8 yards, setting up third and 2.
Chris Godwin, who had done little as a receiver in the game, took an inside handoff and ran 19 yards around right end to extend the Bucs’ lead to 21-10 with 11:36 remaining.
Easy come, easy go
The Panthers’ lead lasted for less than a minute.
On the first play from scrimmage after Chuba Hubbard put Carolina ahead for the first time in the game with a 1-yard touchdown run, Tampa Bay took the lead right back.
Baker Mayfield found a wide-open Mike Evans deep over the middle, and the receiver sprinted the rest of the way to the end zone, diving into the pylon to complete a 75-yard touchdown reception.
Chase McLaughlin’s extra-point kick gave the Bucs a 14-10 lead with 4:54 remaining in the third quarter.
Outside linebacker Brian Burns, the Panthers’ best defensive player, was ejected following the kick for throwing a punch at Bucs guard Cody Mauch.
Two long Bryce Young completions midway through the third quarter set up a Chuba Hubbard touchdown run that gave the Panthers their first lead of the game.
Young first found tight end Stephen Sullivan near the left sideline for 16 yards and a first down to the Tampa Bay 48.
Then, after Hubbard gained 8 yards up the middle, Young connected with a wide-open Jonathan Mingo down to left sideline for 31 yards to the 9.
Two Hubbard carries did the rest, as the running back bulled 1 yard up the middle on his second attempt to give the Panthers a 10-7 lead with 5:04 to play in the third quarter.
Coming up empty
The Panthers drove into Bucs territory late in the first half, but it didn’t result in any points.
With 34 seconds remaining, Bryce Young found DJ Chark down the left sideline for 22 yards and a first down at the Tampa Bay 45.
Two plays later, Young went back to Chark for 4 yards to the 41, bringing up third and 6.
Young scrambled for a first down, but a holding penalty against guard Justin McCray nullified the play. Young then threw deep down the right sideline for Adam Thielen, but the pass was incomplete.
On fourth and 16 from the Carolina 49, Young deliberately threw the ball out of bounds, ending the half.
Slip slidin’ away
The wet weather appeared to be a contributing factor as the Bucs committed the first turnover of the game late in the first half.
Mike Evans was wide open running down the left sideline, but the ball appeared to slip out of quarterback Baker Mayfield’s hand, resulting in a badly underthrown pass. Xavier Woods grabbed what amounted to a jump ball at the Carolina 45 and was tackled at the 40.
The Bucs started the drive backed up in their own end. Facing third and 8 from the 9, Mayfield fired a dart to Evans over the middle for 13 yards and a first down at the 22.
Two plays later, Rachaad White turned a possible negative play into a positive by spinning out of a potential tackle in the backfield and picking up 6 yards to the 29. It brought up third and 3, setting the stage for Jackson’s interception.
The Panthers failed to take advantage. Bryce Young was penalized for intentional grounding, putting Carolina into a second-and-25 hole it was unable to climb out of, and the Panthers punted the ball right back to the Bucs.
The Panthers drove to the Bucs 1-yard line on their second possession before settling for a field goal.
Carolina picked up its first, first down of the game at the start of the drive, a 6-yard completion from Bryce Young to Adam Thielen to the Panthers 37.
Bucs linebacker K.J. Britt was injured on the play and later left for the locker room on a cart. Tampa Bay was already shorthanded at the position, with Lavonte David, Devin White and SirVocea Dennis out with injuries.
A 6-yard pass from Young to tight end Ian Thomas moved the ball to the 43. Chuba Hubbard picked up 6 more on the ground, giving Carolina a first down at the 49.
The Panthers moved into Bucs territory when Young found Thielen over the middle for 12 yards to the 39.
One play later, Hubbard found some running room off the left side, gaining 17 yards to the 22. He might have had more, but he slipped on the wet field.
Anthony Nelson then dropped Hubbard for a 2-yard loss and Carlton Davis stopped Jonathan Mingo after a 3-yard reception. But Davis threw Mingo down after the play, resulting in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that gave the Panthers a first down at the 11 as the first quarter came to a close.
On the first play of the second quarter, Hubbard got to the edge around right end, picking up 9 yards to the 2. After Young overthrew Mingo in the right corner of the end zone, Carolina faced third and 1.
Ryan Neal dragged down Hubbard from behind for a loss of 3, and the Panthers had to settle for a 23-yard field goal from Eddy Piñeiro and 7-3 deficit with 13:30 to play in the second quarter.
The Bucs took advantage of great field position on their second possession to take an early lead.
Starting at the Tampa Bay 43, Baker Mayfield got things started with a 5-yard pass to Mike Evans. Rachaad White then was stopped after a 1-yard gain, bringing up third and 4 from the 49.
Mayfield kept the drive alive by hitting Trey Palmer on a slant pass for 6 yards and a first down at the Panthers 45.
After White dropped a short pass over the middle, Donte Jackson broke up a pass for Palmer, making it third and 10.
But Mayfield floated a pass for Evans down the right sideline, and the receiver pulled it in for a 40-yard gain to the Carolina 5.
A pass interference penalty against Xavier Woods two plays later gave Tampa Bay a first down at the 1.
White plunged up the middle for the touchdown, giving the Bucs a 7-0 lead with 6:08 remaining in the first quarter.
The Bucs defense forced the Panthers to go three-and-out on their opening possession.
Starting at the Carolina 15, Chuba Hubbard was stopped for no gain. Bryce Young then threw the ball into the ground, quickly bringing up third and 10.
Young’s pass for Jonathan Mingo near the left sideline was ruled incomplete, but the Panthers challenged the call. The call was upheld, costing Carolina a timeout and forcing the Panthers to punt.
Progress, but no points
The Bucs picked up two first downs on their opening drive and briefly appeared to have a third before punting the ball away.
Tampa Bay started on the ground, with Rachaad White rushing up the middle for 8 yards to the Bucs 33. After Chris Godwin dropped a Baker Mayfield pass thrown behind him, Deven Thompkins took a swing pass 2 yards to the 35 for a first down.
Trey Palmer picked up another first down two plays later, taking a reverse 12 yards to the 49. The Bucs stayed on the ground, as White went up the middle for a yard. A 13-yard Cade Otton reception appeared to give Tampa Bay another first down, but White was called for offensive pass interference, making it second and 19 from the 43.
A 6-yard White run made it third and 13 from the 49. Mayfield’s pass over the middle for Palmer was incomplete, resulting in a Jake Camarda punt.
Struggling Bucs face last-place Panthers
Todd Bowles is adamant. The Bucs have to stop beating themselves with mistakes if they’re going to turn their season around.
Despite losing six of seven games following a promising 3-1 start, a third straight NFC South title and a fourth consecutive playoff berth remain within reach if the Bucs (4-7) finish strong over the next six weeks.
The stretch run begins today against last-place Carolina (1-10), which has the NFL’s worst record and is playing for the first time since firing coach Frank Reich 11 games into his first season leading the Panthers and No. 1 overall draft pick Bryce Young.
The Bucs will also close the season on the road against Carolina in January. But the way Tampa Bay has been losing, Bowles knows his team has to fix what’s ailing themselves before they can expect to be successful.
“We can’t play the Bucs plus the opposition,” Bowles said, reiterating that self-inflicted, untimely mistakes and breakdowns — whether it be on offense or defense — are holding the team back.
“It’s got to start (today). We don’t really care if it was a 12-0 team or a 1-10 team — we’ve got to start with ourselves. We’ve got to play hard, no matter who we’re playing on Sunday. The urgency has got to be there, no matter who’s on the other side of the field.”
For the second time in just over a year, the Panthers are facing Tampa Bay shortly after the in-season firing of a head coach. Carolina let Matt Rhule go in October 2022, two weeks before upsetting Tom Brady and the Bucs 21-3 in Charlotte.
Interim coach Chris Tabor will lead the Panthers following last Monday’s firing of Reich.
Bowles doesn’t feel playing a team making its debut under an interim coach changes the challenge for Tampa Bay.
“Chris is a great coach. He’s been a great special teams coach, he’ll be a good head coach,” Bowles said. “You can’t revamp your team in a week, so you concentrate on the scheme. I’m sure they’ll tweak some things, but we’ve got to worry about the things we can correct ourselves and go out and play them and see what happens.”
Brady retired from the Bucs after last season, however the Panthers will still see a familiar face on the field leading the Tampa Bay offense — former Carolina quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield appeared in seven games for the Panthers a year ago, going 1-5 as a starter, before finishing the season with the Los Angeles Rams.
“I’m excited for Bake to see him having success over there,” Carolina center Bradley Bozeman said. “Just hope he doesn’t have as much success against us on Sunday.”
Tabor will serve as the team’s interim head coach for the remainder of the season. He has served as an interim coach once before when he subbed in for a game in 2021 with the Chicago Bears when Matt Nagy had COVID-19.
Offensive coordinator Thomas Brown will resume play-calling duties for Carolina. The Panthers offense is 30th in the league in total yards and 29th in scoring and struggles to protect Young, so Brown has his work cut out for him. Carolina has allowed 43 sacks this season and Young is constantly under pressure.
The Bucs will play four of their remaining six games within the NFC South. Entering Sunday they trail division co-leaders Atlanta and New Orleans by one game. In addition to facing the Panthers twice, Tampa Bay will also play the Falcons (5-6) and Saints (5-6) once each down the stretch.
“My mindset right now — and it should be for the whole team — is we’re in a playoff-mode mentality,” Mayfield said.
“We have to pick up the pace. We have to have a sense of urgency about it,” the quarterback added. “I think everybody realizes what is at stake. We have to win out. We have to win these division games to get to where we want to go and to get into the playoffs.”
Tampa Bay has won the division the past two seasons, including with a losing record in 2022.
— FRED GOODALL, Associated Press
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