Panthers stifle Bucs, cruise to 8th straight victory

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers officially have their first winning season in five years, following an easy 27-6 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It was another dominating performance for the league’s top scoring defense, holding the 3-9 Bucs to a measly 206 yards of total offense and just six points.

In fact, Tampa Bay didn’t score after the half and Carolina (9-3) coasted in the second half.

Here are four observations from another Panthers bullying of an NFC South opponent:

1. The red-zone efficiency for both sides continues to carry this team

Heading into Sunday, the Panthers had surrendered one touchdown for every three red-zone trips from the opposition — the league’s best percentage.

What could have been a close game at halftime was a 17-6 edge for the Panthers. And that was all because of Carolina’s offensive and defensive prowess in the red zone.

The Panthers quickly went three-and-out to open the game, and Tampa Bay efficiently moved the ball down the field to the Carolina 17. The Panthers stood tall, though, stopping tailback Brian Leonard short on a critical 3rd and 4 to force a field goal.

Four plays later, the Tampa Bay defense closed the pocket around Cam Newton, but he escaped for a 56-yard run. Newton looked like Darrelle Revis might get him after 20 yards, but Steve Smith delivered an excellent seal block, springing Newton on the outside for an extra 40 yards.

“The first quarter run was simply a tale of Steve Smith,” Newton said. “That’s just a tribute to who he is as a player. I couldn’t have done it without Steve.”

Two plays later, Newton hit Brandon LaFell for a 16-yard touchdown at the back of the end zone, allowing the Panthers to grab the 7-3 lead.

The defense quickly did their part in getting a three-and-out, but the Panthers offense didn’t. Newton attempted to hit LaFell (three catches, 36 yards, one TD), but the pass was a bit high and tipped into the arms of the Buccaneers, who returned it to the Carolina 33.

The Panthers held the Bucs to minus-3 yards on the drive, though, and forced a Ryan Lindell 53-yard field goal. Another botched three-and-out  by the Panthers followed, and the defense gave up 60 yards on a double move by Vincent Jackson (against Drayton Florence), leaving the Bucs with 1st and goal from the four.

Two plays resulted in nothing and then the Panthers got tons of pressure from Mike Glennon’s right side, forcing him to scramble left where he fumbled trying to get the ball out.

“When we get in the red zone, it’s field goal or turnover. That’s our mindset,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “We did a good job in the red zone, guys did their job, played their responsibility and when that happens guys make plays.”

The Bucs wouldn’t see the red zone again.

“I know on our sideline what it does to us, and I know you can’t get men like us riled up. Once we get riled up, it’s going to go to an even higher level than it was already at,” Hardy said of the red-zone stops.

It sparks the offense, too.

The Panthers headed into Sunday ranked 27th in the league in red-zone trips (2.5 per game), but were converting those to touchdowns at the fourth-best rate in the NFL (64.3 percent).

They converted again late in the first half on a methodical seven-play, 49-yard drive to end the half. After failing to get in on 1st and goal from the 8 after three plays, head coach Ron Rivera was back to his gambling ways, going for it from the 1-yard-line with a 10-6 lead.

Newton had a running start before leaping above the pile, breaking the plane of the goal line and extending the Panthers’ lead to 17-6.

“I liked the way that we were moving the ball offensively, and I really felt confident and comfortable in our ability right there,” Rivera said. “Again, to me it was at a point in the game where if you can score points going in I think it sends a really good message and if you don’t score the points the way we were playing defense, I really felt comfortable and confident in our guys as a team.”

So why is a unit that struggles to move the ball at times so efficient in the red zone? The answers differ.

“Cam. Cam. Coach calls a play and a lot of times it’s a check play and Cam gets us into the right play,” running back Mike Tolbert said. “He’s doing a hell of a job for us.”

Added Ted Ginn: “We’re just balanced. You don’t know what we’re going to do down there.”

2. Carolina doesn’t necessarily need to turnovers to win

Prior to the eight-game winning streak, if Newton threw two or more interceptions, you could surely write up a loss.

 Not Sunday. The Panthers rolled in spite of two picks, both LaFell targets.

The first interception Sunday wasn’t Newton’s fault.

“The first one that was all me. I feel like if I can get half a hand on a ball, I gotta catch it,” LaFell said. “Ball kept floating and I didn’t jump as high as I should have, that’s not on Cam.”

The second was a simple miscommunication LaFell said — and it looked like he was bumped before the ball was there. Regardless, these Panthers now the capabilities to steamroll an opponent despite two turnovers.

“Well, that’s something we don’t want to get accustomed to with the careless mistakes, but we’re going to have games like this,” Newton said. “Coming up the next game we know we’’re going to have to minimize these turnovers in order to put ourselves in position to win this football game.”

Newton still passed for 263 yards and two touchdowns, adding 68 more on the ground. The rushing yards were key, since DeAngelo Williams was out with a thigh injury.

3. Carolina’s toughest test yet awaits next week

During Carolina’s eight-game winning streak, the club defeated the defending NFC champions (49ers) on the road and a perennial title contender (Patriots) on Monday Night Football.

But nothing can compare to what’s at stake on Sunday night — a road encounter with the 9-2 Saints (who play the Seahawks tomorrow).

It’s the vintage big-time offense versus big-time defense. Saints own the league’s third highest-scoring offense (27.7 points per game) and the Panthers have the league’s best scoring defense.

“For them, Drew Brees gets the ball out quick, so we just have to go our hands up and try to knock some balls down,” Kuechly said. “And we just have to cover their targets.”

Hard to imagine the Panthers will be able to hold the Saints to six points. But how many would the offense need to beat the Saints?

“Ask our defense. Ask our defense,” LaFell said. “If they keep playing the way they’re playing — whatever we give em — we’re going to win.”

A win would also give the Panthers the division lead. And they’re aware of what’s on the line next week.

“We have a huge test in front of us come Sunday night. We know it’s going to be rocking down there in New Orleans. We just have to be ready for that challenge,” linebacker Thomas said. “I think we’ve had a lot of success and can’t get too excited about it because it’s going to be probably our biggest test to date.”

4. The Panthers defense needs Charles Johnson back as soon as possible

The Panthers defense looked shaky against Miami a week ago with Johnson out nursing a sprained ACL. They got beat deep twice and didn’t seem to get the consistent pressure we’d seen previously from this defensive line.

That wasn’t the case Sunday.

“I think the big part of it was how our secondary played. I thought them getting up and being physical early on helped set a tone. We disguised coverages very well so it put a little bit of doubt in the quarterback’s mind,” he said. “(Glennon) didn’t have the opportunity to release the ball quickly because I’m not sure that he was sure what our coverages were.”

“Guys stepping up, that’s what it’s about. Next man up,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “We definitely miss Charles being out there — he’s one of our leaders on the defensive line and one of our better players on this team.”

The hope is that Johnson will be back against the Saints and Brees — a noticeable upgrade from the Bucs’ Glennon.

“(Johnson’s) my guy. That’s my left side,” Hardy said. “He’s a dominant defensive end in the NFL, he is big time for our defense.”