Carolina challenged a non-pass interference call, was gifted a first down spot before the two-minute warning, and the Panthers still had an opportunity to steal a victory from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with 1:28 to play. On 4th-and-1 from the Buccaneers' three-yard line, Panthers star running back Christian McCaffrey took a direct snap and ran to his left, but was pushed out of bounds and stopped a yard short of the first-down marker by Vernon Hargreaves. The defining play capped off a strong performance by a revamped Tampa Bay defense as Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians also earned his first win with the franchise.
The play was part of a controversial night for Cam Newton and the Panthers. Let's examine this Thursday Night Football game with some takeaways from a Panthers' performance that leaves many scratching their heads.
Why the Buccaneers won
Jameis Winston arguably had his best performance in years. Winston finished 16-of-25 for 208 yards and a touchdown for Tampa Bay in the victory, finishing with zero turnovers and a 103.4 passer rating. It was a much better performance compared to four days prior when he threw three interceptions in the opener against San Francisco. Winston and Chris Godwin had an excellent connection as Godwin finished with eight catches for 121 yards and a touchdown, a 20-yard catch from Winston in the second quarter.
Tampa's revamped defense was strong again in the victory, holding Carolina to 352 yards, 3-of-14 (21 percent) on third down and 0-of-3 on fourth down. The Bucs had three sacks, all of which came from Shaq Barrett (who finished with four quarterback hits) and forced three fumbles (recovering one). When asked to make the biggest stop of the game, Vernon Hargreaves pushed Christian McCaffrey out of bounds one yard short of the first-down marker to preserve the win.
Carolina didn't score a touchdown, thanks to the Tampa defense.
Why the Panthers lost
The Panthers have serious problems on offense. Cam Newton struggled throughout the night, finishing 25-of-51 (49 percent) for 333 yards with no touchdowns, no interceptions and a 70.1 passer rating. Newton, who developed a new throwing motion over the offseason after experiencing shoulder problems the past few years, missed open receivers and failed to step into his throws throughout the night. Newton could not run to the outside and extend the play, limiting his effectiveness. Remember Newton suffered a left ankle sprain in Week 3 of the preseason.
Carolina abandoned Christian McCaffrey several times throughout this game, as McCaffrey finished with 16 carries for 37 yards and two catches for 16 yards. He also failed to get a yard on the Panthers' final offensive play. Greg Olsen led the Panthers with six catches for 110 yards, his first 100-yard game since the NFC Wild Card playoff loss to the Saints in January of 2018.
This was a play that didn't happen, but needed to happen if Carolina was going to pull off the victory. On 1st-and-10 at the Tampa Bay 46-yard line midway through the third quarter, Winston throws a pass deep left to Breshad Perriman, but under throws the ball. Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who had 17 tackles on the night, read the pass beautifully and dropped the sure interception with the Panthers up 12-10.
Tampa Bay (and Winston) earned a second chance to take the lead and scored four plays later. Peyton Barber scored on a 16-yard touchdown run to give Tampa Bay a 17-12 lead over Carolina, taking the lead for good.
If Kuechly comes down with the interception, the Panthers may have escaped with the victory.
Play of the Game
Hargreaves stopping McCaffrey on 4th-and-1 at the Buccaneers three-yard line, preventing the Panthers from not only the end zone, but reaching the first down marker. The Buccaneers allowed the Panthers to drive 10 plays in 60 yards with a 20-14 lead in the final minutes, but did not break in not allowing Carolina to score a touchdown to win the game.
The Panthers tried their own variation of the "Philly Special" with a direct snap to McCaffrey, who didn't flip the ball to Curtis Samuel, taking the ball and rushing to his left in an attempt to beat Hargreaves on the corner. Hargreaves didn't budge and McCaffrey was stopped for no gain.
After review, the ball was spotted short of the two-yard line and the Panthers turned the ball over on downs. Carolina finished 0-of-3 on fourth down, largely because of the Buccaneers defense.
"His foot is not such, don't even trust, even worry about the foot. The foot's got nothing to do with it ... We felt good about the play scoring a touchdown and unfortunately it didn't work. That's all I can tell you. We felt good about the play." - Panthers coach Ron Rivera on the failed 4th-and-1 play that decided the game, and why he didn't call a Cam Newton sneak.
The Panthers didn't call a Newton sneak play on any of their fourth-down plays, finishing 0-for-3 on the night. Newton suffered a left ankle sprain in the preseason, which may be hindering his mobility. He finished with two carries for zero yards on the night.
The Buccaneers have an opportunity to continue their momentum with a home date against the New York Giants on Sunday, September 22 (1 p.m., Fox, fuboTV try for free). Tampa Bay lost a 38-35 slugfest to New York last year, which Eli Manning went 17-of-18 for 231 yards and two touchdowns. Saquon Barkley had 142 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The Giants are coming off a Week 1 blowout loss to the Dallas Cowboys and host the Buffalo Bills Sunday.
The Panthers will travel to Arizona on Sunday, September 22 (4:05 p.m., Fox, fuboTV try for free) in search for their first win of the season against the Cardinals, who are coming off a Week 1 tie with the Detroit Lions. Carolina hasn't lost to Arizona since 2013 and hasn't played the Cardinals since 2016. Arizona has a road game against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday.
To see how it all played out in real time, check out our live blog of the night below. You can watch the replay, including in condensed and all-22 formats, with NFL Game Pass.