Buccaneers vs. Panthers: Strong Finish Lifts Tampa Bay's Playoff Hopes

Knox Bardeen@knoxbardeenNFC South Lead WriterNovember 18, 2012

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 18:  Dallas Clark #44 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates with teammates after scoring the game-winning touchdown in overtime against of the Carolina Panthers during play at Bank of America Stadium on November 18, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Tampa Bay won 27-21 in overtime.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been playing Greg Schiano football of late.

Since their Week 5 bye, Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman had thrown 13 touchdown passes and just one interception. Rookie running back Doug Martin hadn’t coughed up the football all season.

Schiano loves mistake-free football and despises turnovers.

On Sunday, at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Schiano wouldn’t be happy until the very end of the game.

Freeman started slowly, with just 87 yards passing in the first half and a rare interception to go along with his first touchdown pass. To make matters worse, his errant pass turned into a Panthers’ pick-six.

In the second half, Freeman would throw interception No. 2. While this one didn’t go back for a Carolina score, it did double his pick total and turn Week 11 into Freeman’s first multi-interception performance since Week 2.

While Freeman’s mistakes halted drives, and one even put points on the board for the Panthers, Martin’s mistake took points off the board.

Early in the fourth quarter, at the tail end of a 15-play, 80-yard drive, Martin fumbled on the 1-yard line before he could cross into the end zone. Panthers’ linebacker Luke Kuechly fell on the ball, and Tampa Bay left the red zone with zero points.

For two players that rarely make mistakes, Freeman and Martin were responsible for a 14-point swing towards the Panthers.

For a team that’s barely in the thick of the playoff hunt, that 14-point swing could have been a devastating season-ender—especially since Carolina took over after Martin’s fumble and drove 80 yards for a touchdown to take an 11-point lead.

But Tampa Bay showed mettle, and Freeman turned back into the hot-handed leader of this Buccaneers team.

After a Connor Barth field goal cut the Panthers’ lead to eight, Freeman and the Bucs got the ball with 1:02 to play and a long 80-yard field to go.

Freeman took 50 seconds to orchestrate a seven-play, 80-yard drive during which he threw seven passes and completed four, the most important a 24-yard strike to Vincent Jackson.

A successful two-point passing play (also to Jackson) tied the game.

Tampa Bay won the overtime coin toss and started its drive on its own 20-yard line, the same place it was 62 seconds prior.

Martin carried the ball three times for 38 yards to start the drive, and then he and Freeman began alternating turns carving up the Panthers defense.

Freeman threw two passes from there for 17 yards. Martin ran twice more as well, gaining nine more yards. The game ended on the eighth play of Tampa Bay’s first overtime drive, when Freeman hit a wide-open Dallas Clark for a 15-yard touchdown pass.

Over the last five games, Tampa Bay has displayed one of the more prolific offenses in the NFL. That offense didn’t show up until the final two drives of Sunday’s action.

Better late than never.

The Bucs’ win pushes them to 6-4 and into a battle for two wild-card spots with the Green Bay Packers (7-3), the Minnesota Vikings (6-4), the Seattle Seahawks (6-4) and the Dallas Cowboys (5-5).

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.