The Tampa Bay Buccaneers blew the Carolina Panthers off the field last Sunday at Raymond James Stadium with a 27-3 win that was shocking in magnitude. But the "shocking magnitude" of the win undermines the true nature of the game. The Panthers weren't especially far off of making this beguiling blowout a competitive game.
The Panthers played what was by far, their worst game of the season against the Bucs, and Tampa Bay played by far, their best game of the season against Carolina. This win over the Panthers was of the highest quality against the toughest opponent the Bucs had taken on all season.
The Atlanta Falcons were a team that couldn't win on the road when the Bucs played them in Week Three. Therefore, this win over the Panthers trumps that the victory over the Falcons.
A major deciding factor in this game—both teams' readiness to play a big division game—was a direct result of the quality of each team's opponent.
The Panthers played the pathetic, overwhelmed, overconfident Kansas City Chiefs the week before facing Tampa. On the surface, it seems the Panthers got too cocky from their blowout win over Kansas City, and this attitude carried over into the Tampa game. In addition, the Bucs are a much tougher opponent than the Chiefs.
The psychological difference between playing a team like the lowly Chiefs that you know you'll beat by 50, as opposed to facing a team as good as the Bucs, would have been especially difficult for any team to adjust to.
It's just that the Panthers got unlucky enough to have a change in quality of opponents this drastic between consecutive games on their schedule.
The Buccaneers played a vengeful Denver Broncos team eager to prove that their blowout loss to the Chiefs was an aberration. Not to mention, the game was played at Denver's Invesco Field. The Broncos put everything they had on the line against the Bucs. They were willing to do anything, which is what won them the game.
Their defense proved this attitude. Up to that point the Broncos' defense had been their Achilles Heel, but against the Bucs, their defense of all things, won the low-scoring 16-13 affair for them.
This quality of opposition got the Bucs as ready for the game against the Panthers as they could have been. The psychological difference between playing an adrenaline-driven team on the road and an overconfident team at home was about the easiest adjustment you could ask for. As a result, when the Panthers came to town, they were ready for anything. Not that they needed to be.
The heavily lopsided score doesn't accurately describe the game itself.
The Bucs' first touchdown, a punt block returned for a touchdown, was the direct result of one missed block. One missed block!
That's not a complete breakdown. That's just one guy who either had a momentary brain lapse and forgot to block his man or got lazy and decided to take a play off at the wrong time. That's not a dominating effort by the Bucs, nor is it a pedestrian team effort by the Panthers—it's just one little thing that made a huge difference.
Of course, the fact that the Panthers were punting from deep inside their own territory reduced the distance Bucs linebacker Geno Hayes had to go to return the block for a touchdown, making the feat easier.
The Bucs' second touchdown was a direct result of a fluke interception. Panthers QB Jake Delhomme threw the ball over the middle to tight end Dante Rosario, who didn't make the catch, but accidentally tipped the ball to lurking Tampa safety Tanard Jackson.
After the pick, the Bucs started at the Panthers' 26-yard-line. That's about as good as starting field position gets. That kind of field position just about automatically gets you at least a field goal, and probably more.
A five-yard penalty for defensive holding against offensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu and an underneath pass for eight yards brought the Bucs down to Carolina's two-yard-line. A painfully easy two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Alex Smith, who had no defender within ten yards of him, earned Tampa their next seven points.
Another interception late in the second quarter killed a momentum-building drive for Carolina.
With the pass rush fast approaching, Delhomme lobbed a noticeably weak pass to the end zone, where it bounced off of receiver Muhsin Muhammad's hands, got subsequently tipped by rookie cornerback Aqib Talib, and finally intercepted by safety Jermaine Phillips.
At the time of the interception, the Bucs were ahead 17-3 late in the first half. But the Panthers were gaining momentum just before halftime. They had worked to the Bucs' 34 from their own six. It looked as though they would go into halftime down by only 11 in the worst-case scenario, perhaps even only by seven. But then the Bucs picked Delhomme's shot at the end zone off.
Even though the game was still fairly young, that was the play that just about effaced all hope and confidence in any kind of comeback for the Panthers.
In retrospect, the Panthers defense was bad—but not absolutely terrible as one might think after seeing the final score. The defense gave up two touchdowns, not a good performance by any means, but simultaneously not a particular bad one either. To their credit, they did stop the Bucs in the red zone once to force a field goal.
Last but not least, the Bucs often had excellent—or at least better—starting field position, even when they didn't force a turnover. The Bucs started seven of their 11 drives from outside their 30. The Panthers never started outside their 28 on their 12 possessions.
I know that Bucs fans will rip me for this, but I really don't see this game as the total annihilation the score makes it look like. This game came down to the little things, and the Bucs took care of them.
Note that I'm not sating that the Panthers should have won. They got what they deserved—a loud and clear wake-up call. They underestimated the Bucs, didn't come ready to play, and ostensibly didn't give much of an effort. They deserved to lose this game.
But I am saying that the game wasn't as much of a blowout as the score beguilingly says it is.
Don't panic, Panthers fans! Our team is still fine!