Carolina Panthers pound Tampa Bay Buccaneers, lock up NFC's top spot

By The Sports Xchange   |   Jan. 4, 2016 at 12:53 AM
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - No reason to doubt the Carolina Panthers after their latest performance.

Coming off their lone loss of the season, the Panthers put the pieces back together in a sterling display to end the regular season.

"We're 15-1," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "We knew it would come down to our execution."

Quarterback Cam Newton made another case for the NFL's Most Valuable Player honors and the Panthers secured the top seed for the NFC playoffs with a 38-10 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

Newton ran for two touchdowns and passed for two more touchdowns for the NFC South champions.

"For us to respond the way we did today, it's great to see," Newton said.

The Panthers cruised in their regular-season finale, completing a 15-1 regular season.

Carolina will open the NFC playoffs at home either Jan. 16 or 17.

"I'm excited to be in front of those guys," Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly said of the fans. "We have to take advantage of it."

While questions arose about the Panthers in the previous two games - a narrow escape against the New York Giants and a loss at Atlanta - some of the concerns could be put to rest.

"We know heading into the playoffs we had to get back on track," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "It was all about getting back on track and creating some momentum."

Newton's 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter tied the NFL career record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 43, pulling even with Steve Young, who's retired as a player. Earlier, Newton tied an NFL record by posting 31 career games of at least one touchdown pass and one touchdown run, also sharing that mark with Young.

Newton finished 21-for-26 for 293 yards without an interception. He wrapped up his day with a 16-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Devin Funchess with 7:22 left.

The Buccaneers (6-10) lost their final four games after flirting with playoff contention in early December. Now, they're looking to the future.

"We've got a lot of great athletes on this team," Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin said. "Young guys who are learning. Once everyone gets on the same page ..."

Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston ended his rookie season by completing 29 of 47 passes for 325 yards and two interceptions. He had a 4-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

Winston said the offseason will be about creating a winning mindset.

"Get ready for next year. I have to do better," he said. "I can't turn the ball over. This team, we're capable."

Tampa Bay opened the scoring with Connor Barth's 39-yard field goal late in the first quarter. That came after the Buccaneers recovered Funchess' fumble in Carolina territory.

Newton put the Panthers ahead with a 1-yard run with 12:35 to play in the second quarter, capping a nine-play, 77-yard drive.

That move was followed by chants of "M-V-P, M-V-P."

Kicker Graham Gano's 49-yard field goal on Carolina's next possession pushed the lead to 10-3.

Davis' interception and 22-yard return to the Tampa Bay 46 set up what became rookie running back Cameron Artis-Payne's first career touchdown run from 11 yards out.

"I finally got in the (end) zone, man," Artis-Payne said. "Even through preseason, I never got in there, so it felt good."

It was 24-3 at halftime courtesy of Newton's 31-yard touchdown strike to Cotchery.

The half ended with back-to-back incompletions after the Buccaneers reached the Carolina 2-yard line.

Tampa Bay fullback Jorvorskie Lane was taken from the field on a cart after suffering a first-quarter lower leg injury that was described as gruesome. He was blocking on the play.

In the third quarter, Carolina cornerback Charles Tillman went out for the rest of the game with a knee injury. He was in his third game back since missing about a month with a knee injury.

NOTES: Carolina has won six consecutive games against Tampa Bay. That included a 37-23 outcome Oct. 4 at Tampa Bay. ... QB Jameis Winston is one of three rookies in NFL history with 3,500 yards passing, 20 or more touchdowns passing and five or more touchdowns rushing. ... Winston played the past two seasons in this stadium, directing Florida State to victories against Duke and Georgia Tech, respectively, in Atlantic Coast Conference championship games. ... Several Carolina players were inactive as expected while nursing injuries. Those included RB Jonathan Stewart, S Kurt Coleman and WR Ted Ginn Jr. This means Stewart finishes the regular season 11 yards shy of 1,000 rushing yards for the season.

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