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Carolina Panthers | Loss to Bucs calls everything into question

Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston thoroughly outplayed his counterpart and fellow former No. 1 draft pick Cam Newton Sunday, and the result was a 24-17 win for the Buccaneers that sent Carolina reeling to its fourth consecutive loss.

The Panthers (6-6) never led against the NFC South’s cellar-dwelling Bucs. Newton, who came into the game with only seven interceptions all season, threw four more on Sunday to tie a Panthers’ regular-season record (Jake Delhomme once threw five, but that was in a playoff game). It was the first time Newton had thrown four interceptions in a game since his rookie season, in 2011, and after the game he blamed himself for playing so poorly.

“I can’t allow that,” Newton said. “I can’t accept that for myself. I’ve just got to do a better job with my accuracy and decision-making.” Newton is playing with a sore throwing shoulder that is limiting his practice time, but he wouldn’t address the exact nature of that injury.

Winston has often had interception problems himself in a checkered career. But the Tampa Bay quarterback avoided the big mistake Sunday and committed no turnovers himself while also throwing for two touchdowns and 249 yards and running for 48 more.

While Newton was bad, he didn’t get a lot of help from his teammates, either. It was the sort of performance that called into question everything about these Panthers, including whether coach Ron Rivera will return next season. Rivera was asked several times in the postgame about a CBS sports report Sunday that owner David Tepper was getting “antsy” and is mulling major changes if the Panthers’ freefall continues.

“Unless Mr. Tepper says it, I’m not going to address it,” Rivera said afterward. “So we can forget about asking me those questions, please.”

A month ago, the Panthers were 6-2 and looked very likely to make the playoffs. Now, with two games left against 10-2 New Orleans among their final four, it appears unlikely Carolina will even finish with a winning record.

Despite all the Panthers’ mistakes, they had a decent chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Four times Carolina got the ball down only 24-17 in the final 12:24, and four times the Panthers gave the ball up without scoring (twice on Newton interceptions, once on downs and once because the clock ran out).

Backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke came in for the desperation heave on the game’s final play — Newton, with his sore shoulder, can’t throw a 50-yard pass as easily as Heinicke can — but the throw was batted down to ensure the Tampa win.

The Panthers’ top two draft picks for 2018 both had serious troubles, particularly cornerback Donte Jackson. On one third-quarter drive, Jackson gave up an 18-yard completion on third-and-11 and then, much worse, interfered in the end zone for a 46-yard penalty that placed the ball at the Carolina 1. For all his speed, Jackson often seems to be getting beaten by several steps.

Jackson disputed his 46-yard penalty later, saying he was going for the football.

“I was trying to get the ball,” Jackson said. “That’s what I was trying to do. I didn’t agree with the call.”

Rivera also indicated he believed Jackson shouldn’t have been flagged.

Wide receiver DJ Moore, so good in the previous two games, saw each of his first two targets in the passing game result in interceptions. Neither were good throws by Newton. The first was behind Moore, although he did get a hand on it and tipped it into the air. The second was a Newton misread, as he threw into what quickly turned into double coverage. After averaging 124 receiving yards the past two weeks, Moore had a modest 44 receiving yards Sunday.

Tight end Greg Olsen left in the first quarter with a ruptured plantar fascia in his right foot and didn’t return on a play where he wasn’t hit. Olsen, once so durable that he didn’t miss a game from 2008-16, has already missed 12 games since the beginning of the 2017 season with injuries and it seems quite possible he will miss the rest of the season.

In the locker room after the game, Olsen was on crutches and obviously perturbed by another foot injury.

“It’s been obviously a very frustrating two seasons now,” Olsen said.

You have to at least wonder if Olsen, 33, will ever play again. He probably can begin a high-profile career as a TV analyst whenever he wants to. Olsen said he won’t make any major decisions in a hurry.

“We’ve kind of pushed this foot I think as far as possible the last two seasons,” Olsen said, “and today it just kind of had enough.”

Carolina has suddenly developed a tradition of special-teams miscues, and that continued Sunday. Kenjon Barner fumbled both a punt and a kickoff. Neither resulted in a change of possession, but the kickoff meant the Panthers had to start on their 8. Then, when Barner finally had a really good return, it was nullified by teammate Ben Jacobs’ block in the back.

Carolina’s first takeaway since Nov. 4 came on a play where Tampa Bay barely missed scoring another touchdown, as Tampa Bay running back Peyton Barber stretched for the end zone and fumbled it instead, where Luke Kuechly recovered.

It felt like summer in December in Tampa, with the temperature during the game in the low 80s. The American flag in Raymond James Stadium was lowered to half-staff in tribute to the 41st president of the United States, George H.W. Bush, who died Friday at age 94.

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