It's been a long second season for Carolina coach Ron Rivera. With just over a minute to play Sunday the Panthers led Tampa Bay 21-13. Facing a fourth down and one at the Buccaneer 49 yard line Rivera opted to punt. Perhaps it was the right decision. The Bucs needed to go the length of the field with no timeouts and get a two-point conversion just to force overtime. Whether it was the right choice or not, it didn't work. After Vincent Jackson caught a 24 yard TD with 12 second left, he snatched the game tying two-point conversion, and on the first possession of OT Josh Freeman hit Dallas Clark for the game winning touchdown. Rivera has seen this before.
In what almost certainly is going to be his final season, Rivera's Panthers found a way to lose yet another close game. The team is now 1-11 in games decided by a touchdown or less since John Fox was fired. Carolina (2-8) failed to protect a lead again. It's their tenth loss under Rivera where they have led or been tied during the fourth quarter.
As for Tampa Bay (6-4), the improbable victory ties them with Seattle and Minnesota for the final NFC playoff spot. Despite committing three turnovers the Buccaneers won their fourth straight and fifth in the last six tries after starting the season 1-3. Once again, rookie RB Doug Martin did the dirty work for the Bucs.
Entering play Martin led the NFL in combined rushing and receiving yards at nearly 132 per game. He nearly gave Tampa the lead on a disputed call early in the fourth quarter. Trailing 14-10 Martin looked to cap a 15 play drive with a touchdown on fourth down and goal from just outside the Carolina one yard line. He rushed to the goal line and lost the ball. The ruling on the field was fumble, and with an official standing in the way of the goal line camera, it was impossible to overturn the call. Martin would get his revenge.
During the final quarter and OT Martin gained 79 yards on the ground. He was a workhorse during overtime touching the ball on five of eight plays and gaining 48 yards. He finished the win with 161 total yards.
Carolina QB Cam Newton, who has never won an NFL game that he has tossed an interception in, played error free football though he failed to thread the league's worst pass defense. Newton finished 16 of 29 for 252 yards and one touchdown. Tampa's defense came into play allowing a league worst 321 yards per game through the air. The Bucs had given up seven passing scores over the last two weeks.
When the two teams kicked off the crowd in Charlotte was sparse. It seems unlikely they will flock to Bank of America Stadium to see the Falcons or Raiders as the Panthers play out the string. Fans will return next year. Rivera will not.