Buccaneers beat Panthers 9-0 to clinch NFC South title, spot in playoffs

Chase McLaughlin kicks 3 field goals to send Tampa Bay to playoffs for 4th straight season
Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Chase McLaughlin kicks 57-yard field goal at Carolina Panthers, Jan. 7, 2024
Posted at 6:16 PM, Jan 07, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-07 19:01:40-05

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are headed to the playoffs for the fourth straight season — and they have their defense to thank.

Chase McLaughlin kicked three field goals, the defense pitched a shutout and the Buccaneers defeated the Carolina Panthers 9-0 on Sunday to win their third consecutive NFC South title.

Tampa Bay (9-8) was facing an all-or-nothing scenario entering Sunday’s game with a win clinching a playoff spot and a loss resulting in elimination.

The Buccaneers weren’t exactly impressive on offense with Baker Mayfield held to 137 yards in his return to Carolina, but the defense — aided by some self-inflected wounds by the Panthers — did just enough.

They held the Panthers to 199 yards and 11 first downs, forced two turnovers and sacked rookie quarterback Bryce Young three times.

"I can't say enough about our defense," said Mayfield, who injured his ankle on Sunday but remained in the game. "A lot of guys stepped up and made big plays on defense. Offensively we ran the ball when we needed to. It wasn't a pretty win by any means and there is room for improvement. But now that we're in the playoffs, we're division champs, let's hit the reset button and go from there."

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Tampa Bay coach Todd Bowles said he likes the culture the Bucs have built — and it carried over to the post-Tom Brady era.

"There's a lot of ways to skin a cat," Bowles said. "The guys believed in each other. They never fed into the outside media. We wrote our own narrative. We worked hard, we practiced hard and they got it done."

Young finished 11 of 18 for 94 yards and the Panthers had two potential touchdowns overturned.

Carolina, which lost 26-0 to the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, became the first team to be shutout in back-to-back games since the Cleveland Browns in 2008. It marked the first time in the Panthers’ 29-year history they’ve been blanked in consecutive games.

The Panthers became the first NFL team since at least 1991 to fail to run a single play while leading in the fourth quarter of a game. Both of Carolina's wins this season came on field goals at the end of regulation when it was trailing.

The Panthers (2-15) finished with the NFL's worst record and the franchise's second-worst winning percentage, topping only a 1-15 season in 2001 under George Seifert. However, Carolina won't get the benefit of the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2024, as that will go to the Chicago Bears as part of the trade for Young.

"This locker room will change," Panthers interim coach Chris Tabor said of the upcoming offseason.

Mayfield spent last season with the Panthers but went 1-5 as a starter and was released midseason. He played through some sore ribs and completed 20 of 32 passes. Rachaad White ran for 75 yards for Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Baker Mayfield at Carolina Panthers, Jan. 7, 2024
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield works in the pocket as Carolina Panthers linebacker Brian Burns defends during the first half Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024, in Charlotte, N.C.

The Bucs took a 6-0 lead at halftime behind field goals of 36 and 57 yards from McLaughlin. McLaughlin added a 39-yarder in the fourth quarter.

The Panthers repeatedly made key mistakes, just as bad teams do.

In the second quarter, DJ Chark caught a pass from Young and raced 43 yards down the sideline for an apparent touchdown. But replays confirmed Chark fumbled as he attempted to jump across the goal line, Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. punched the ball out and Tampa Bay recovered in the end zone for a touchback.

"When I saw the receiver catch the ball, I saw him stick the ball out with one hand, so I'm like, 'He's going to reach for it,'" Winfield said. "So I kept my leverage and once he reached, I just punched it out."

At the end of the third quarter, Panthers fill-in kicker Matthew Wright missed a 52-yard field goal after Young took a sack on third down, resulting in a costly 9-yard loss.

Running back Raheem Blackshear had a 28-yard touchdown run called back in the fourth quarter when the Panthers were flagged for an illegal formation.

"We shot ourselves in the foot," Tabor said.