The Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked up their first win of the 2019 season in dramatic fashion.
Tampa Bay bounced back from a season-opening loss with a 20-14 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Thursday's NFC South showdown at Bank of America Stadium. The Buccaneers are 1-1, while Carolina already has ground to make up at 0-2.
The Panthers had an opportunity to take the lead in the final two minutes, but Vernon Hargreaves III made an incredible tackle of Christian McCaffrey on a direct snap on 4th-and-1 from Tampa Bay's 2-yard line to preserve the lead.
Jameis Winston was solid at 16-of-25 for 208 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions, while Cam Newton struggled for much of the game and finished 25-of-51 for 333 yards, zero touchdowns and zero picks with one fumble lost.
The Buccaneers defense also held McCaffrey to just 37 rushing yards.
Panthers Can't Survive with This Version of Cam
The 2019 Panthers are in trouble.
The version of Newton on display Thursday was nothing like the one who captured the league MVP in 2015. It was nothing like the one who has so routinely hit receivers 50 yards downfield with the flick of a wrist while still posing as a running threat.
Instead, he was one of the main culprits for the type of ugly football that is so often associated with Thursday night games.
Newton spent the first half underthrowing and overthrowing receivers. Multiple passes went into the ground near the feet of Jarius Wright and DJ Moore, while some even sailed over their heads. Even a 44-yard pass to Curtis Samuel required the Ohio State product to break his stride and come back to a ball on what could have been a touchdown connection.
The second half wasn't much better, even though Newton was bailed out multiple times.
An ugly interception to Kevin Minter was called back because of a penalty, a missed Matt Gay field goal kept Carolina within five after Newton lost a fumble, and the Panthers defense notched a safety and a critical three-and-out after he threw an incompletion on 4th-and-1 in the fourth quarter.
All those bailouts gave Newton two more chances in the final minutes. The first opportunity was a three-and-out in which he underthrew Samuel, missed a wide-open Moore and threw behind a wide-open Samuel.
The final opportunity was far more promising in part because of an abysmal spotting of the ball by the officials and a facemask call on Tampa Bay, but Newton and the offense still couldn't find the end zone.
It is fair to at least wonder about the signal-caller's health considering he underwent shoulder surgery in January. David Newton of ESPN.com noted the Auburn product didn't throw a single pass longer than 26 yards through the air in a Week 1 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. He also has five carries for minus-two yards in two games, which is a far cry from his typical dual-threat playmaking.
The read-option has seemingly disappeared from the playbook (surely to minimize hits on his shoulder), and the offensive line is not helping.
Tampa Bay didn't hesitate to send pressure, and Newton was sacked three times and routinely hit when he dropped back to throw. Left tackle Daryl Williams whiffed on multiple blocks, and a struggling quarterback combined with an offensive line having pass-blocking issues was a recipe for offensive disaster.
The 2019 Panthers need McCaffrey to set the tone if they are going to win games and challenge for the playoffs, but Thursday's contest was a perfect example of why that will be increasingly difficult with this version of Newton.
The Buccaneers stacked the box and consistently forced the running back to the sidelines without having to worry about Newton torching their single coverage in the secondary.
Either Newton is going to need to make drastic improvements in the coming weeks, or the Panthers are well on their way to a disappointing season.
Jameis Winston Bought Himself Another Week
The narrative around Winston after Week 1 was not pretty.
He went just 20-of-36 for 194 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers and didn't look comfortable in the pocket while airmailing throws and costing his team a winnable game.
The Florida State product was staring at plenty of pressure facing a division foe on the road and a potential 0-2 start, especially since he is attempting to prove himself under a new head coach (Bruce Arians) and is only under contract through the remainder of this season.
Winston has also been a turnover machine throughout his career, and his opening outing did nothing to dispel the notion:
Tampa Bay's offense continued to struggle at the start of Thursday's contest, as it was forced to punt on four of its first five possessions. He had trouble reading the defense and took multiple sacks while holding onto the ball too long.
However, things started to click on Winston's final possession of the first half when he found Mike Evans in single coverage on a deep ball and connected with a cutting Chris Godwin for the visitors' first touchdown.
He also responded in the second half when he lost the lead, hitting Godwin with a 24-yard strike to soften up Carolina's defense before Peyton Barber found paydirt. Barber finally found some running lanes in the second half when the Panthers started adjusting for Winston's showing, and he finished with 82 rushing yards and the score.
Winston's solid numbers would have also looked much better if Breshad Perriman didn't let a would-be touchdown pass go right through his hands. It was the type of perfectly placed ball the signal-caller didn't feature in the loss to San Francisco and provides some optimism heading into the coming games.
There is enough talent on this team that even mediocre quarterback play will allow the offense to thrive.
Godwin has emerged as a top-notch option after posting career highs of 842 receiving yards and seven touchdown catches last year, Evans is a two-time Pro Bowler who has surpassed 1,000 yards every season of his career, and O.J. Howard is a physical mismatch who can exploit the middle of the field.
That Winston has held the group back at times underscores the fact he is playing on a week-to-week basis, given his contract status and turnover tendencies.
Tampa Bay needs to see he is both the short- and long-term answer if it is going to trust him with the starting spot this season and potentially a new contract down the line. He will have daunting tests to prove himself before the Week 7 bye with games at the Los Angeles Rams, at the New Orleans Saints and home against the Panthers in Weeks 4 to 6.
He bought himself some time with his impressive road win Thursday.
Both teams will face opponents that are currently winless in Week 3. The Buccaneers will host the New York Giants, while the Panthers will play the Arizona Cardinals on the road.