CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton scored on a 2-yard touchdown run with 35 seconds remaining to lift the Carolina Panthers to a 22-19 win over the upset-minded Tampa Bay Buccaneers and clinch a spot in the NFC playoffs.
The Panthers (11-4) trailed most of the second half, but Newton drove the Panthers 59 yards completing 4 of 7 passes for 52 yards in the final 3 minutes before scoring on a what could have been a disastrous play. Newton fumbled the snap from the shotgun, alertly picked it up and then raced across the goal line for the go-ahead score.
Newton celebrated the score by using the football as a prop, pretending to light a candle on a cake in celebration of his son Chosen's 2nd birthday.
Carolina can clinch the NFC South championship with a win over Atlanta and a New Orleans loss to Tampa Bay.
The Panthers sealed the game when Kawann Short sacked Jameis Winston on Tampa Bay's final drive, and forced a fumble that Julius Peppers recovered. Winston threw for 367 yards and a touchdown but was sacked six times and fumbled three times. The Bucs are 4-11.
The Panthers offense struggled all day.
Newton threw for just 160 yards and ran for 52 yards on 14 carries. Carolina's only touchdown in the first three quarters came on a 103-yard kickoff return by Damiere Byrd.
Tampa Bay's defense set the tone early, limiting the Panthers to just 78 yards in the first half — the fewest in an opening half since Newton took over as Carolina's starting QB in 2012.
SLOW START: The Panthers finished the first quarter with 7 yards of offense — their fewest yards in a 1st quarter since gaining 5 total yards in a 38-17 loss to the Packers in Week 7, 2014.
ALL IN THE FAMILY: Danielle Kalil, the sister of Panthers offensive linemen Ryan and Matt Kalil, sang the national anthem. The crowd gave her a huge ovation and she was greeted by hugs from her brothers as she walked off the field.
Buccaneers: Host Saints next Sunday.
Panthers: Visit Falcons next Sunday.