Panthers 16, Buccaneers 6
Josh Freeman kept guiding Tampa Bay inside the 20-yard line and Carolina kept taking the ball away, no matter how improbable it all seemed.
Five turnovers later, the Buccaneers' rookie quarterback was stunned and their miserable season took another ugly twist.
Jonathan Stewart rushed for 120 yards and the game's only touchdown, and the Panthers picked off Freeman five times on Sunday - three times in or near the end zone - in a 16-6 victory over the Buccaneers.
In a matchup of inexperienced quarterbacks entering with a combined seven career starts, Matt Moore and the Panthers (5-7) won despite being outgained 469-309.
The difference: Tampa Bay (1-11) was inside the Carolina 30 eight times and scored six points.
``That's just completely unacceptable,'' said Freeman, the first-round pick from Kansas State who took over as the starter a month ago. ``I want to play in this league a long time. Guys that throw a lot of picks usually don't last.''
It was a role reversal with Carolina's struggling QB Jake Delhomme sidelined with a broken finger after throwing 18 interceptions in 11 games.
Moore made his fourth start and his first since the end of the 2007 season. He threw for 161 yards and one interception, but connected on a 66-yard pass to Steve Smith that set up John Kasay's third field goal with 7:12 left that put it away.
``I had to come into this thing and I had to be right,'' Moore said. ``Not perfect, but I had to be right.''
That allowed the defense to win the game. Jon Beason had two interceptions during a stretch where Tampa Bay had four trips inside the 20 and didn't score.
Freeman, in his fifth pro start, completed 23 of 44 passes for a career-high 321 yards. Carnell ``Cadillac'' Williams rushed for 92 yards, but poor throws at costly times doomed the Bucs.
``Up until this point, he had been really great in the red zone,'' Bucs coach Raheem Morris said of Freeman. ``Today, he just made some bad decisions.''
His biggest error came on fourth-and-goal from the 2 with the Bucs trailing 13-6 early in the fourth quarter. Chris Harris picked him off in the end zone.
Freeman was twice intercepted by Beason in the third quarter, once in the end zone with Carolina leading 10-6, and again near the goal line after Carolina had taken a seven-point lead. That came one play after Chris Gamble had fumbled a punt to give Tampa Bay the ball at the 20.
With Connor Barth hitting the upright on a 36-yard field goal and missing a 42-yarder later, the Bucs spent the brisk day wasting opportunities and another solid defensive performance after Morris took over the playcalling.
``You start thinking things are against you,'' Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud said.
With thousands of empty seats, it was a much different atmosphere from their Monday night meeting here last season when both teams were 9-3 and vying for the NFC South lead, short-handed Carolina was just good enough to snap a two-game losing streak in its disappointing season.
``We still have a lot to play for other than playoffs,'' Panthers fullback Brad Hoover said. ``There are jobs on the line.''
The Panthers were without running back DeAngelo Williams, who entered as the NFL's fourth-leading rusher with 1,022 yards but injured his ankle a week earlier against the Jets.
It gave Stewart his first career start, and he rushed for 82 yards in the first half, including a 3-yard touchdown run on the first possession.
Stewart had a career-high 26 carries, meaning Moore had to do less. He threw just 20 passes, completing 14.
``He had a lot of pressure on him through the week and he responded well,'' receiver Muhsin Muhammad said.
The Panthers took a 10-0 first-quarter lead when Kasay became only the seventh kicker with 400 career field goals. The Buccaneers got back in the game behind receiver Antonio Bryant, who complained last week that he wanted a bigger role in the offense. He caught five passes for 116 yards, including catches of 40 and 20 yards that set up two field goals.
Bryant made another miraculous one-handed grab along the left sideline in double coverage early in the second half. But Freeman was picked off on the next play in the end zone by Beason, playing less than a week after his arrest on a misdemeanor assault charge.
It was that kind of day for Tampa Bay, with Freeman's final pick by Gamble with 18 seconds left. Charles Godfrey had Carolina's other interception.
``I don't know if he was rattled or not,'' Godfrey said. ``He threw us a couple of balls and we caught them.''
NOTES: The Bucs were without top CB Aqib Talib (hamstring). ... Bucs RT Jeremy Trueblood leveled Gamble well after the play to stall a first-half drive. ``It's just unacceptable,'' Morris said. ... Bucs KR Clifton Smith sustained his second concussion against Carolina this season on the opening kickoff and didn't return. ... Panthers DE Tyler Brayton (head) and LB Na'il Diggs (ribs) were banged up.