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With Home Loss on MNF, Panthers May Finally Be in Hole They Can't Escape

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistOctober 11, 2016

CHARLOTTE, NC - OCTOBER 10:  Derek Anderson #3 of the Carolina Panthers reacts after throwing an interception late in the fourth quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during their game at Bank of America Stadium on October 10, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Winning without your franchise quarterback is never easy, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tried their best to make it very easy on the shorthanded Carolina Panthers on Monday night.

And yet the Panthers still found a way to lose for the fourth time in five games to start the 2016 NFL season. 

On the road against a depleted secondary, Tampa Bay got a mediocre-at-best performance from franchise quarterback Jameis Winston and saw second-round rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo miss two field goals. The Bucs found the end zone just once and did everything they could to botch a two-minute drill with the game on the line. 

But the Panthers still fell short at home to a Tampa Bay team that was missing key cogs Doug Martin, Gerald McCoy, Robert Ayers and Clinton McDonald. 

Concussed Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is the reigning NFL MVP, but high-quality teams should be able to beat mistake-prone, inferior opponents with or without their star quarterback. Just look at the New England Patriots, who started 3-1 without suspended future Hall of Famer Tom Brady. Or the Arizona Cardinals, who defeated the San Francisco 49ers by a double-digit margin on the road this week despite the absence of concussed Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer. 

The Minnesota Vikings are 5-0 without the injured Teddy Bridgewater. The Pittsburgh Steelers were 3-2 last year without injured star signal caller Ben Roethlisberger. The Denver Broncos just continue to win regardless of who's under center. 

So spare me the excuses for the Panthers, who would have needed only 18 points at home Monday night in order to beat a weakened Bucs team that had allowed at least 24 in each of its first four games, and an average of 32 per game. 

Instead, Carolina settled for just two third-quarter touchdowns from running back Cameron Artis-Payne, scoring only 14 points in its second four-turnover home performance in a four-week span. 

What went wrong? It starts with Newton's replacement, Derek Anderson, who threw two interceptions. The first came off a tough-luck deflection, but the second came—inexplicably—on a terrible play-action pass on a 1st-and-goal from the Tampa Bay 1-yard line with the game tied at 14 in the fourth quarter.

That throw was on Anderson, but the decision falls on offensive coordinator Mike Shula. A play-action pass there indicates a coach is overthinking. Artis-Payne and fellow back Fozzy Whittaker had picked up a combined 42 yards on just three carries on that drive, so there was no reason to get fancy through in the air with a backup quarterback on the 1-yard line. 

That alone might have cost the Panthers a much-needed victory Monday night, but it shouldn't have come down to that. They were forced to pray that they'd be bailed out by poor Aguayo and his yips, partly because of that Anderson interception, but also because Anderson fumbled inside Tampa Bay territory early in the fourth quarter, Ted Ginn Jr. muffed a punt in the second quarter and because they converted just one third down all night. 

Bucs-Panthers: Key stats
CategoryTampaCarolina
Turnovers04
Time of possession34:0925:51
Third downs6-151-8
ESPN.com

They were 1-of-8 on third downs, committed four turnovers in total and took some silly penalties. Two false-start penalties in a six-second span late in the second quarter cost Graham Gano about 10 yards on a field goal he likely would have made from closer, and a Kony Ealy face mask gave the rattled Aguayo 15 extra yards for what was the game-winning field goal. 

It was sloppy and sad, and not just because Newton wasn't there. Had the three-time Pro Bowler been healthy and active, he might have saved the Panthers. But it's discouraging that his teammates looked so lost without him. 

They'll get Newton back, but let's keep in mind that this team would still likely be no better than 2-3 had he not suffered that concussion last week against the Atlanta Falcons. Things weren't right before Newton went down, and now a team with a mess of a secondary and a quarterback with major injury concerns is three games back of the red-hot Falcons in the NFC South. 

NFC South standings
TeamRecordDivision games
1. Falcons4-12-1
2. Bucs2-32-0
3. Saints1-30-1
4. Panthers1-40-2
NFL.com

I know, the Panthers battled back to win the division after starting 3-8-1 in 2014, and they cruised to a division title last season. You can't completely count them out, but the fact is the NFC South didn't have any other winning teams in either of those seasons. 

It appears as though that's going to change in 2016, which is a bad sign for a Carolina team that will have to deal with the likes of Arizona, Kansas City, Oakland, Seattle, Washington and Atlanta again between now and the end of the regular season. 

Carolina's patchwork secondary allowed a struggling Winston to make too many plays Monday night, so there isn't much hope for that unit against strong opposing quarterbacks and offenses that are are actually dialed in. 

With or without Newton, the 1-4 Panthers are officially in real trouble. 

   

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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