At the two yard line with the game on the line after the snap the ball slipped out of the hands of Cam Newton.
“Well I thought the idea was to put it on the ground, get them to freeze for a second and pick it up for a score,” head coach Ron Rivera said during the post game press conference to shed some light on the situation. “But the best part is it didn’t ruin my Christmas, which I really appreciate.”
With Newton’s child Chosen celebrating a birthday this past Sunday, Newton made sure he was in the best of spirits. After the fumble, which almost seemed like a basketball dribble, Newton managed to posses the pigskin and get behind behind his offensive lineman to power it in for a touchdown almost as if he was driving the lane finishing with a hot step for an easy bucket. He then took the football and pretended to light a candle on the football before giving it to a fan to spread some joy after his 15th career game winning drive.
“I almost gave it up but it was the element of surprise,” Newton said of the game winning run.
The touchdown put the Panthers up 22-19 with 35 seconds remaining. When Panthers defense pounced on Jameis Winston inside the pocket for a sack the ball squeaked out his hands and Julius Peppers was rewarded with possession after fighting for possession against Winston. Though the game was close the Panthers managed to pull out a win capped by a 59-yard drive to win the game when they found themselves down 19-15 with three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
“There’s a lot of things that we can correct that we will correct but I got to give credit to Tampa Bay. I mean, they came in and didn’t roll over,” Rivera said.
Panthers defense will need to do better at getting off the field, Rivera said. Buccaneers went 6-11 on third down conversions and converted at times when Rivera felt the defense could have buckled down to get a needed stop. Winston thrown for 367 yards against the Panthers and the Panthers offense were held to three field goals in the red zone. They were able to overcome these obstacles to win and that’s what impressed Rivera.
“When we had a chance to drive down we did. We gave ourselves a chance to win this game,” Rivera said.
The “keep pounding” aspect is what Newton admired as well.
“I’m proud of our resilience,” Newton said, who also displayed some after having to leave the game in the second quarter for an injury.
Lavonte David got Newton in the groin area when he attempted to wrap up Newton on a designed quarterback option.
“I don’t think it was intentional, just his hand hit the wrong spot. I plan on having more Chosen’s one day and he didn’t help it,” Newton said.
As for the offensive struggles throughout the game it didn’t bother their confidence on the final drive.
“We knew what we’re capable of,” Newton said. “We just wanted to get in a rhythm and find a way to gain some cushion [but] when you let a team like that stay involved things like that happen.”
On that final drive Buccaneers were jamming Greg Olsen all down the field and paid special attention to wideout Devin Funchess, Rivera said. Newton finding other targets was huge, he said.
“They were trying to take out our two most effective [but] Cam came up big for us, finding the guys open down field,” Rivera said.
As the Panthers clinched their fourth playoff appearance in five seasons they have an opportunity to win NFC South. Beating Atlanta Falcons (9-5), who are fighting for the final wildcard spot, and a New Orleans Saints (11-4) week 17 loss will give them their fourth divisional title in five years.
Whether or not the scenario works in the Panthers favor winning week 17 is the team’s top priority.
“We’re playing this game to win,” Rivera said during Tuesday’s press conference. “I want to keep as much momentum going forward as possible.”
By Gino Terrell