What it means: The Panthers are 6-9 and won’t finish last in the NFC South. That’s because the Buccaneers (4-11) clinched that. This is a classic late-season case of one team soaring and another falling faster than anyone could have imagined. The Panthers are going to head into the offseason with tons of optimism because they already have a high-powered offense. All they need is to get a few injured players back, tweak their defense a bit and they sure look like playoff contenders for the 2012 season. Tampa Bay lost its ninth straight game. Coach Raheem Morris made a big deal of “the race to 10 (wins)’’ last year. Looks like the Bucs are racing to 10 straight losses to end this season. Nice progress.
Best record: Peyton Manning’s record for passing yards by a rookie (3,739) had stood since 1998. But it’s been broken now. Carolina’s Cam Newton passed it early in the first quarter. Oh, by the way, Newton also had his 14th rushing touchdown of the season, the most ever by a quarterback.
Best performance by a newcomer: Carolina safety Jonathan Nelson was signed off the practice squad this week due to an injury to Charles Godfrey. Nelson got the start and came up with an interception in the third quarter.
The Morris watch: There’s no question Morris is on the hot seat as his team has fallen apart since starting 4-2. I know there’s a small minority out there who say Morris should keep his job, replace himself as defensive coordinator and make a switch at offensive coordinator. Yeah, that’s brilliant and no doubt would put the Bucs straight into the Super Bowl next season. Actually, it’s ludicrous. It’s like having a refrigerator that hasn’t worked in more than two months and saying, “No need to call a repairman or get a new one because this thing just might kick in at any moment." The Bucs keep taking steps back and the team is in total disarray. There’s also the matter of Morris’ contract, which runs through 2012. If the Bucs somehow were even thinking about keeping Morris, they’d have to extend him because you can’t go into a season with a lame-duck coach (just ask the Panthers how that worked out with John Fox last year). If you do, you run the risk of the players tuning out the coach. Looks like some of that already has happened. It would be awfully tough to give Morris an extension as a reward for the way the Bucs have finished this season. I’m sure the fan base would be thrilled if that happens.
The Rob Chudzinski watch: Chudzinski is the offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers and his name is getting thrown about as a potential candidate for a job as a head coach. Yeah, maybe the Bucs go out and find a bigger name — and maybe they can’t. But the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, should have been watching this game and saying, “Hmm, this Chudzinski guy is doing a pretty nice job with a rookie quarterback. Maybe we should put him on the list.’’
Blount benched: Running back LeGarrette Blount lost a fumble on Tampa Bay’s first offensive play. He was benched after that and the Bucs went with Kregg Lumpkin and Mossis Madu, before Blount was inserted back into the game in the third quarter. Nice to see Morris using discipline. Then again, it’s probably too little too late.
What’s next: The Panthers finish their season Jan. 1 at New Orleans. The Buccaneers play their final game the same day in Atlanta.