‘Gamers & Lamers’ in Panthers Vs. Buccaneers Week 16 Game: Fan’s Analysis

Christmas came early for the red-hot Carolina Panthers offense in Week 16.

After starting the season 2-8, the young, injury-ravaged Carolina Panthers have caught fire late in the season, winning three of their last four games as they welcomed NFC South rival Tampa Bay to Bank of America Stadium on Christmas Eve. The smoking hot Carolina offense entered the game averaging 30.2 points over the last five games and must have viewed the struggling Tampa Bay defense as an early Christmas present. Santa made an early visit to Charlotte as the Panthers destroyed the Buccaneers 48-16.

On a personal note, I attended this game with my ten-year-old son and had a memorable day with him as we witnessed history being made as Cam Newton broke the rookie passing record and Brandon LaFell scored the longest touchdown in Panthers history. You can read my more personal, less analytical account by clicking here if you are so inclined.

While the NFL post game shows cover the scoring plays, I look for the less visible but equally crucial plays that sustain drives, spring the big plays, or change momentum. Here is my analysis, as a Panthers fan, of these key plays, both good ("The Gamers") and bad ("The Lamers") that took place during Carolina's Week 15 road victory against the Houston Texans.

1st Quarter

10:17, Jordan Gross, T - Gamer. Score tied 0-0, CAR ball on TB 8. On 1st-and-Goal Cam Newton lined up under center and handed off to DeAngelo Williams to the left. LT Jordan Gross got into the second level of the defense on his block, forcing LB Geno Hayes to swing wide and out of position, then Gross sealed LB Quincy Black. Gross eliminated two linebackers as DeAngelo went eight yards untouched into the end zone, giving Carolina an early 7-0 lead.

10:01, James Anderson, LB - Gamer. Panthers lead 7-0, TB ball on TB 17. On the Bucs first play from scrimmage, QB Josh Freeman and RB LeGarrette Blount had a bad handoff exchange and fumbled. LB James Anderson shot through the crowd and recovered the fumble, setting up the Panthers for a field goal and a 10-0 lead.

6:07, Greg Hardy, DE - Lamer. Panthers lead 10-0, TB ball on TB 40. Tampa Bay faced a 3rd-and-2. DE Greg Hardy tried to anticipate the snap but instead jumped offside, giving the Bucs a first down on a drive that ended with a Tampa Bay touchdown, trimming the Panthers lead to 10-7.

2nd Quarter

13:20, Jonathan Stewart, RB and Steve Smith, WR - Gamers. Panthers lead 10-7, CAR ball on CAR 9. On 2nd-and-9 Cam Newton lined up in shotgun near his own end zone with Jonathan Stewart to his left. Tampa Bay blitzed safety Sean Jones up the middle and Stewart picked up the blitz with a solid block, allowing Newton to stand in the pocket. Newton fired a deep slant to Brandon LaFell. LaFell made a great leaping catch and began sprinting toward the end zone with three Bucs defenders in pursuit - Ronde Barber, Tanard Jackson, and E.J. Biggers. Fellow WR Steve Smith became a blocker for LaFell, cutting in front of Barber and Jackson, causing them to slow down, then Smith put a block on Biggers. Brandon LaFell took the ball 91-yards to the house for the longest touchdown in Panthers history and a 17-7 Panthers lead.

6:21, Antwan Applewhite, DE - Gamer. Panthers lead 17-7, TB ball on CAR 27. Tampa Bay faced a 3rd-and-7 nearing the red zone. Josh Freeman lined up in shotgun and dropped to pass. DE Antwan Applewhite faked a rush then dropped into zone coverage in the middle. Freeman was nearly sacked but managed to flip a pass to Sammie Stroughter. Applewhite closed on Stroughter and dropped him after a three-yard gain, forcing a fourth down and a Tampa Bay field goal, trimming the Carolina lead to 17-10.

4:31, Jordan Gross, T and Steve Smith, WR - Gamers. Panthers lead 17-10, CAR ball on CAR 34. On second down Cam Newton lined up in shotgun with Jonathan Stewart to his right. Newton handed off to Stewart who went off left tackle where Jordan Gross forced DE Adrian Clayborn wide, opening a large hole. Steve Smith was lined up wide left and sustained a strong block on E.J. Biggers, eliminating him from the play as Stewart broke a tackle and rumbled 32 yards. The long play was key in setting up the Panthers for a field goal to end the half, pushing the Carolina lead to 20-10.

3rd Quarter

12:01, Brandon LaFell, WR - Gamer. Panthers lead 20-10, CAR ball on TB 22. Nearing the red zone Cam Newton lined up in a short shotgun with Jonathan Stewart to his right and DeAngelo Williams behind him. Newton faked a handoff to Stewart and ran an option right with Williams. After making a blitzing safety commit, Newton lateraled to Williams down the right sideline. Brandon LaFell was split wide right and sustained a solid block on the cornerback, creating a lane for Williams to run untouched for a 22-yard touchdown and a 27-10 Panthers lead.

7:16, Andre Neblett, DT - Gamer. Panthers lead 27-10, TB ball on TB 48. On 1st-and-10 the Bucs got tricky as Josh Freeman handed off to WR Michael Spurlock who was coming in motion from right to left. Spurlock threw the ball back to Freeman who then hit Kellen Winslow down the right sideline. Winslow leaped and hurdled safety Sherrod Martin but Winslow fumbled. The fumble was recovered 26-yards down field by a hustling DT Andre Neblett who never gave up on pursuing the play. The Panthers scored on the next drive on a screen pass to Jonathan Stewart, pushing the lead to 34-10.

1:19, Greg Hardy, DE and Andre Neblett DT. Panthers lead 34-10, TB ball on CAR 44. Facing 4th-and-1, Tampa Bay went for it. Josh Freeman lined up in shotgun. DE Greg Hardy executed a nice spin move, shedding his blocker and collapsing the pocket, forcing Freeman to his left. DT Andre Neblett swung wide and pressured Freeman, forcing an incompletion and a Tampa Bay turnover on downs.

:33, Cam Newton, QB - Gamer. Panthers lead 34-10, CAR ball on TB 49. On 2nd-and-4 Cam Newton lined up in shotgun with Jonathan Stewart to his left. Newton faked the handoff to Stewart and ran through a gaping hole off the right guard. Cam absolutely juked safety Tanard Jackson in the open field and Jackson failed to even get a hand on Newton. CB E.J. Bigger had a good angle and hit Newton at the 10-yard line, but Cam delivered a strong stiff arm and dragged Biggers into the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown and 41-10 Panthers lead.

:17, Jason Williams, LB - Gamer. Panthers lead 41-10, TB Kickoff Return. Special teamer Jason Williams flew down the field to cover a Carolina kickoff and nailed kick returner Sammie Stroughter with a hard tackle about ten yards out of the end zone. Williams forced Stroughter to fumble and the ball was recovered by Carolina deep within Tampa Bay territory, setting up a Jeremy Shockey touchdown two plays later as the Panthers pushed the lead to 48-10.

4th Quarter

11:11, Greg Hardy, DE - Gamer. Panthers lead 48-16, TB ball for Two-Point Conversion. After a Josh Freeman 1-yard touchdown lunge, Tampa Bay lined up for a two-point conversion. Freeman went shotgun, took the snap, and looked to his right. DE Greg Hardy blew past tackle Donald Penn and came from Freeman's blindside, strip-sacking the Bucs quarterbak and preventing the two-point conversion.

4:33, Jason Shirley, DT - Gamer. Panthers lead 48-16, TB ball on CAR 36. With the game all but over, Josh Freeman dropped back to pass. DT Jason Shirley executed a nice spin move, shedding his blocker and leaving the offensive lineman on the ground. Shirley sacked Freeman and continues to make the most of his opportunity to prove himself in light of the rash of injuries to the defensive line.

The surging Carolina Panthers now stand at 6-9 and have won four of their last five, giving fans an early Christmas present. Just as children often dream about Christmas presents, Panthers fans like me are dreaming about a healthy squad next year, with visions of Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, Ron Edwards, Jeff Otah, Geoff Schwartz, and David Gettis dancing in our heads.

If the Panthers current momentum can be coupled with better health in 2012, look for the Panthers to make a become one of the surprise teams next season.

Andrew Sweat is a North Carolina resident and loyal Panthers fan. More from this author:

'Gamers & Lamers' - Week 15 vs. Houston

The Curse of the Carolina Panthers DT Strikes Again!

Top Five Crazy-But-True Carolina Panthers Stats

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Updated Tuesday, Dec 27, 2011