Thoughts on the Panthers’ 38-19 win over Tampa Bay Sunday, in which Carolina played its most complete game of the season while improving to 4-8. (UPDATE: And here's my column from Tampa on Cam Newton and his dazzling performance).
Best start: The Panthers scored on their first two drives, taking a 14-0 lead before the game was 10 minutes old. Tampa Bay never got closer than eight the rest of the way.
Best run defense: Surprisingly, the Panthers played superbly against the Bucs’ LeGarrette Blount, who was held to 19 yards in 11 carries after averaging 105 yards in his previous two games.
Best rushing quarterback in the red zone: Cam Newton may be the best the NFL has ever had at this. He scored three touchdowns from one yard out Sunday, setting a new NFL record for quarterbacks with 13 for the season (Steve Grogan had 12 for New England in 1976).
Best break: The Buccaneers are a far different team with Josh Freeman at quarterback compared to Josh Johnson. With Freeman out due to a shoulder injury, the Panthers dared Johnson to beat them. He couldn’t.
Best undrafted free agent: Thomas Keiser, the rookie defensive end from Stanford, had a sack and an interception for Carolina as he continues to show up at opportune times.
Best trend: After losing 12 road games in a row, the Panthers have now won two straight.
Best throwback uniforms: While others may differ, I’m a big fan of the Bucs’ Creamsicle orange jerseys that they broke out for a throwback day Sunday.
Worst crowd: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa looked about half full for most of the game and was far less than that in the fourth quarter, when the Panthers led by as many as 26 and the fans were anxious to get out and salvage the rest of a glorious afternoon.
Best single play: Lots of choices, but I’d pick the pass from Legedu Naanee to Newton for 27 yards just for the dazzling creativity of it.
Best breakout performance: Naanee threw that pass, caught a touchdown pass, picked up a key first down on third-and-14 and threw a number of good blocks.
Best red-zone efficiency: The Panthers got inside the Buccaneers’ 20 five times and scored touchdowns every single time.
Worst Newton throw: Newton was close to flawless – the Panthers are now 4-0 when he doesn’t commit a turnover. But he was bemoaning after the game a long pass to Steve Smith that he underthrew and that ended up incomplete. Newton thought Smith might have scored had he thrown the ball better.
Best overall performance: The Panthers played their most complete game of the season, setting season highs in points (38) and victory margin (19).