Biggest takeaways from Panthers’ Week 17 loss to Buccaneers

A once-improbable shot at an NFC South crown seemed all too real on Sunday afternoon, when the Carolina Panthers carried a two-score lead in the fourth quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Unfortunately for them, Tom Brady happened.

Let’s sift through that and the other big takeaways from the fateful 30-24 loss in Week 17.

The absence of Jaycee Horn hurt (a lot)

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The Panthers didn’t have their top cornerback Jaycee Horn in uniform. They also didn’t have their No. 2 in Donte Jackson—whose season ended almost two months. And, boy, did it show.

Tampa’s sleepy offense woke the heck up on Sunday, due mostly to the connection between quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Mike Evans. Brady, who tossed for a season-high 432 yards, found Evans for three long touchdowns—the first for 63, the second for 57 and the third for 30.

Starters CJ Henderson and Keith Taylor Jr., in place of Horn and Jackson, were manning the four-time Pro Bowler on the scores—with the latter allowing the first touchdown and the former the next two. After the game, interim head coach Steve Wilks attributed one of the two scores on Henderson’s watch to a botched decision by the safety biting over the top.

Regardless, it’s rather clear when the Panthers defense doesn’t have its premier cover man on the field.

We saw the two sides of Sam Darnold

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Through three quarters, Darnold was probably playing the best ball he’s ever played as a Panther. Even though he chalked up his first interception and fumble of the campaign, he looked confident and composed while pacing Carolina to a 21-10 lead with his three touchdown passes.

But, he might’ve gotten spooked.

As the defense began to falter, allowing a 20-point quarter to Tampa Bay, Darnold allowed the pressure to squeeze him. Then, in what was the biggest play of the game, the fifth-year passer was stripped with under three minutes left in the fourth quarter—coughing up another fumble that set the Bucs up at the Panthers’ 6-yard line.

Two plays later, Brady punched in a 1-yard touchdown to push his squad up to a 9-point lead—one Darnold and the offense couldn’t make up for.

Take a bow, Wilks

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If someone had told you after Week 6—when the Panthers sat at 1-5—that this team would be competing for a division title in Week 17, you’d think that someone was insane. Well, that prospect wasn’t so crazy after all.

Wilks—in jumping obstacle after obstacle—revived his players, the fans and this franchise over the past three months. Even without star Christian McCaffrey, he helped guide a lost offense to an actual identity. And after years of a largely listless defense, he helped bring some swagger back to the talented unit.

Whether Wilks is around to lead the team next year is another topic for another day. So for now, congratulations to him and his Panthers for an inspiring run.

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Story originally appeared on Panthers Wire