CHARLOTTE, NC Local Charlotte News – In the final home game of what has turned into another tumultuous season for the Carolina Panthers, reigning Super Bowl champion Tom Brady and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers went home with a late Christmas gift.
Behind 232 yards on 18-of-30 passing from the 3-time NFL MVP, the Bucs defeated Carolina 32-6 Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, and with it clinched a playoff berth and an NFC South title, its first since 2007.
Quarterback Sam Darnold, who the Panthers (5-10) signed in the offseason, was made available after returning from a hamstring injury and a big hit to the head where he went into concussion protocol. Darnold returned with 8 minutes to go in the 2nd quarter and made an instant impact connecting on a 63-yard pass to Shi Smith that ended on the Buccaneers 10-yard line. Newton would return but there was some confusion and the Panthers had to burn a timeout. The Panthers would end up settling for a field goal.
It was unclear if this was the final game for Newton as a Panther. Darnold has an option year for about $18 million next season. He was in for Carolina’s final drive, while Newton watched from the sideline.
Bookend scores by Tampa in the 3rd quarter put the game out of reach at 29-6 with a field goal in a series of plays highlighted by a 23-yard catch by Rob Gronkowski to start it and a rushing touchdown from Ronald Jones II to end it.
Things fell apart in the 4th quarter as the offensive line seemed to be falling asleep, along with many of the fans in the stands who headed towards the exits. Darnold took hits in every series and the Bucs finished with 7 sacks on the day, the most they’ve had since 2013.
Lirim Hajrullahu, who the Panthers signed last week to replace injured Zane Gonzalez, connected on a 24-yard FG to take a 3-0 lead midway through the first quarter. Tampa Bay responded on the next possession with a 55-yard TD run from Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
Tampa Bay (11-4) tacked on a field goal and a momentum-shifting touchdown when Brady found Cyril Grayson for 62 yards putting them in the red zone under the 2-minute warning. Brady would find Cameron Brate in the endzone for a 19-6 lead and the game seemingly felt all but over before halftime. The Bucs failed on a 2-point conversion attempt.
Brady, who was selected to a record 15th Pro Bowl last week, finished with 1 TD, 232 yards on 18-of-30 passes. Darnold completed 15-of-32 passes for 190 yards with no TDs while Newton was 7-of-13 with 61 yards and 1 INT.
Antonio Brown, who was returning from a suspension for violating the NFL’s COVID-19 safety protocols, led the Bucs with 101 yards on 10 catches. Tampa Bay was without Leonard Fournette, who is on IR with a hamstring injury. Shaq Barrett left the game and did not return after suffering an apparent knee injury in the first half. Jason Pierre-Paul did not play with a torn rotator cuff.
The Panthers return to action next Sunday in New Orleans (1 p.m., News 46 Charlotte).
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