TAMPA, Fla. — Carolina fired its coach after a 1-4 start, then traded star running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Robbie Anderson.
Somehow, the Panthers managed to play themselves back into the race for the NFC South championship. They came into Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay controlling their own destiny, but a 30-24 loss ended the Panthers’ division title hopes.
“We fight until the end,” Panthers cornerback Keith Taylor Jr. said. “They ended up making more plays than we did.”
Carolina needed to beat the Buccaneers and then defeat New Orleans on the road in next weekend’s regular-season finale to claim its first division crown since 2015.
Instead, the Panthers (6-10) will miss the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
The team fell to 5-6 under interim coach Steve Wilks, who led a resurgence after Matt Rhule was fired five weeks into the season.
“I think that’s a credit to the guys in that locker room,” quarterback Sam Darnold said. “They’ve been doing a good job all year with battling though adversity. You name it, we’ve kind of dealt with it this year. I thought we did a really good job of battling through that stuff not only off the field but on the field.”
Now, an offseason of decisions — including whether to bring back Wilks and Darnold, who will be a free agent — awaits.
The Buccaneers won their second straight NFC South title at Carolina’s expense as Tom Brady threw for 432 yards and three touchdowns to Mike Evans.
The Panthers (6-10) led 14-0 early and 21-10 after Darnold’s third TD pass of the day, 10 seconds into the fourth quarter.
But the Bucs took over with Evans beating cornerback C.J. Henderson for touchdowns twice and Darnold losing a fumble on a sack inside his own 10 that resulted in Brady’s 1-yard TD sneak to put the game out of reach with 1:58 left.
Henderson sat quietly and changed slowly at his locker after the game. He got up and headed for the team bus without speaking to reporters.
The Panthers had won four of six to climb back into playoff contention in the aftermath of Rhule’s dismissal.
Darnold threw for 341 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He also lost two fumbles while falling to 3-2 since becoming Carolina’s starter.
“We’ve got to do a much better job protecting the football,” Wilks said. “We can’t give up explosive plays as we did. Turning the ball over led to 10 points. And you can’t win against a quarterback like (Brady) turning the ball over.”
Darnold completed 23 of 37 passes with TDs of 17 yards to Tommy Tremble, 24 yards to DJ Moore and 19 yards to Shi Smith, the last putting Carolina up 21-10. The Panthers rushed for just 74 yards as D’Onta Foreman was limited to 35 yards on 13 carries and Chuba Hubbard was held to 20 yards on five attempts.
“We wanted to make them beat us in the air,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. “We didn’t think they could beat us in the air, so we tried to take those two guys away on the ground.”