Pass the Tylenol, pound the Gatorade and hide the remote: The Panthers’ post-Super Bowl hangover isn’t getting any better.
Roberto Aguayo, Tampa Bay’s much-maligned rookie kicker, made a 38-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Bucs to a 17-14 victory in a Monday Night Football game that did nothing for the NFL’s struggling TV ratings.
Aguayo had missed two earlier field goals, but he was good when it counted. Of course, his game-winner was greatly aided by a facemask penalty on Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy that moved the Bucs 15 yards closer.
The Panthers fell to 1-4 a year after the franchise’s second Super Bowl berth, and the odds of them getting back to the postseason are getting longer with each loss.
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Since the NFL went to its current 12-team playoff format in 1990, only eight of 128 teams that started 1-4 made the playoffs – although Kansas City and Houston both did so last year.
Houston (site of Super Bowl 51), we have a problem.
Actually, the Panthers have lots of them.
“We told you guys what happened the year before has nothing to do with this year. We’ve been saying that since the day after the Super Bowl,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “That’s the reality of it. It’s unfortunate we had to learn it by being 1-4, but that’s the way this league goes.
“You’re not promised anything in this league. No one’s going to roll over because of what you’ve done in the past. You’ve got to earn everything. And right now we’re not earning anything.”
This game was the Attrition Bowl, with both teams missing several starters because of injury.
At the top of the list was Panthers quarterback and reigning league MVP Cam Newton, who missed the third game of his NFL career with post-concussion symptoms.
Newton was not at the stadium and watched the game from an undisclosed location – assuming he stayed with it through all the mistakes and ugliness.
Derek Anderson played smartly and efficiently while filling in for an injured Newton twice against Tampa Bay in 2014 – both Carolina victories.
But that was not the case Monday.
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Anderson had three of the Panthers’ four turnovers – a fumble and two interceptions, both of which came on passes he forced into coverage. Meanwhile, the Carolina defense did not force a takeaway.
The Panthers lost only 19 turnovers last year when they led the league in turnover margin. They already have 14 giveaways this season and are tied for the third-worst turnover margin in the league.
And that talk from Ron Rivera about how the Panthers were losing to good teams?
The Bucs (2-3) had lost six in a row to Carolina, dating to the 2013 season. They entered the game ranked next to last in the league in scoring defense (32 points per game allowed) and promptly shut out the Panthers in the first half.
Tampa Bay was without three of its four starting defensive linemen and its top two running backs. Didn’t matter. The Panthers made utility back Jacquizz Rodgers (30 carries for 101 yards) looks like Barry Sanders.
Defensive end Charles Johnson looked dazed after the game, said it was “very shocking” to be sitting at 1-4 with a trip to New Orleans up next.
The Panthers somehow trailed only 6-0 at the half, despite a first half that saw them muff a punt, miss a field goal and lose the turnover battle 2-0.
But the Bucs weren’t much better, settling for three Aguayo field goal attempts on three trips into the red zone in the first half. Aguayo, drafted in the second round after the Bucs traded up for him, doinked a 33-yarder off the right upright but made two from 35 yards.
Throw it to Olsen
Carolina took a 14-6 lead with a pair of touchdown drives to begin the second half.
For all the grief Mike Shula catches from fans who question his halftime adjustments, the Panthers’ offensive coordinator had a nice balance of run and pass to begin the second half.
Shula also had the good sense to call tight end Greg Olsen’s number.
Olsen went all Julio Jones on the Bucs with nine catches for 181 yards, the most by a tight end in Panthers history.
The Bucs should have seen it coming. When Anderson started the two games against Tampa Bay in 2014, Olsen was his 6-5, 255-pound security blanket.
It’s not as if Anderson was dinking-and-dunking the ball to Olsen on checkdowns. Olsen had receptions covering 34, 33, 24, 21 and 20 yards (twice).
But Anderson got too hung-up looking for Olsen on a crushing fourth-quarter turnover.
On first-and-goal from the 1, Anderson threw into the corner of the end zone for Olsen, who had two defenders on him in Tampa’s zone coverage. One of them – cornerback Brent Grimes – came down with the interception to thwart Carolina and keep it 14-all.
“It’s just tough. We tried to make a play there,” Olsen said. “We had a lot of momentum. Obviously one we’d like to have back.”
The Bucs drove into field goal territory – thanks to a dumb personal foul penalty on linebacker A.J. Klein – only to see Aguayo pull a 46-yard attempt wide left.
The Panthers didn’t do anything after Aguayo’s second miss, going three-and-out as Shula returned to his conservative ways. The drive consisted of three Cameron Artis-Payne carries, followed by an Andy Lee punt.
That set the stage for second-year quarterback Jameis Winston to drive the Bucs into field goal range and give Aguayo a shot at redemption. Aguayo, the former Florida State kicker who was the most accurate in NCAA history, is now 4-for-8 as a pro.
But he made the big one when it counted.
And the Panthers were faced with the daunting math of the fate has befallen 94 percent of the teams that have started 1-4.
Artis-Payne, who had the Panthers’ only two touchdowns, is ready to buck the odds.
“The mindset of this team is we can easily win out,” he said. “We put together a 14-game stretch where we won last year. And we can put together whatever stretch this year.”
But last year seems like a long time ago. Olsen and the more veteran Panthers are just worried about getting a win.
“It’s going to take a lot of hard work and dedication. A lot of people are going to have to have a gut check,” Johnson said. “We’ve just got to put some wins together.”