The Panthers’ leading man made a statement in this final regular season game, all but securing himself as the top MVP candidate. Cam Newton was back to his usual tricks after a subpar performance last week and moved his team down the field without his top running back and wide receiver. He threw for 293-yards and two scores on an 81% completion percentage and also rushed for two more scores. His rushing total gives him 43 total rushing scores, good for most by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era and his overall performance marked the 31st time Newton has passed and rushed for a score, tying Steve Young for the most all time. The Panthers quarterback completed pass after pass to a slew of receiving options and was able to punch the ball in for scores in the red zone while also delivering a number of perfectly placed passes. A stellar performance marked the end to a tremendous year for Newton who should easily wind up with MVP honors.
The Panthers were set to deploy a heavy dose of Cameron Artis-Payne in this one and the rookie did not disappoint. With Jonathan Stewart and Fozzy Whittaker sidelined Artis-Payne and fullback Mike Tolbert provided the offense with the necessary punch in the run game as they rushed for 44 and 59-yards, respectively, including an 11-yard touchdown run for the rookie. Both runners showed tremendous patience and vision and provided the necessary burst through the hole to help Newton and this offense move the chains and prove that even without their Pro Bowl running back, they can still command respect in the run game.
This matchup saw one of the best performances from a Panthers wideout this season as rookie receiver Devin Funchess posted a career day. He was targeted eight times and made the most of them by catching seven receptions for 120-yards and score; marking career highs in targets, catches and yardage. With Ted Ginn Jr. out this week, Funchess became Newton’s go-to guy and proved he was up for the challenge, producing in a big way for this squad. Philly Brown and Jerricho Cotchery also had productive days as Brown caught three passes for 58-yards and Cotchery had two for 52, including a 31-yard score. Brown dropped two passes and Funchess and Brenton Bersin each fumbled but regardless, this day was overall a solid one for this bunch.
For once, a big day through the air did not mean a big day for Greg Olsen. The veteran tight end had one of his least productive games this season as caught just two passes for a mere 16-yards. With the receivers playing so well and the run game being so effective, there was little need for Olsen to be the usual clutch go-to pass catcher this week.
It looked as though it would be poor day for the Panthers offensive line after giving up two straight sacks on the first drive of the game but they quickly settled in an ended the day respectably. Overall, they gave up four sacks and five quarterback hits but after that first drive, were able to give Newton more than adequate time to survey the field and find his receivers. In the run game they did an excellent job opening holes for the running backs.
The Panthers defensive line that has been starved for production outside of Kawann Short finally saw some life this week. Throughout much of this contest they were able to apply pressure to Jameis Winston and force him to hurry throws. The stat sheet shows a modest day as Mario Addison and Kevin Love recorded the only two sacks, but the team did have eight quarterback hits and did their part to disrupt the Buccaneers offense through the air as well as with Doug Martin in the ground game.
The linebacking crew in Carolina had themselves a solid and productive day for this defense with contributions coming from a number of players. Luke Kuechly logged nine tackles and Shaq Thompson showed his usual pop with a few big hits en route to a seven tackle day, with both recording a tackle for loss and a pass deflection. Thomas Davis picked off a pass on a great read in coverage marking his fourth of the year and finished with five tackles, tying him with Mike Minter for the most tackles in Panthers’ history with 953.
After a string of poor games from this group, they finally stepped up and put in a solid performance in this one. At corner, newcomer Robert McClain recorded seven tackles and picked off a Winston pass to halt a Bucs drive, Josh Norman got back to his shut down ways and Cortland Finnegan made a number of key tackles. Tre Boston made a few nice plays as well in replacing the injured Kurt Coleman with five tackles including one for a loss. One negative from this group though came with Charles Tillman who had to leave the game due to an injury to the same knee that ailed him earlier this year, which could mean trouble going forward with an already depleted cornerback crew.
A normally rather low-key special teams group actually had quite a noteworthy day to finish out the regular season. Teddy Williams and the punt coverage unit did a terrific job covering one third quarter punt, forcing the fumble and taking it to the three yard line. And Panthers kicker Graham Gano set the franchise record for points in a season with 146, passing longtime Carolina kicker John Kasay.