Now the N.F.C. South is cluttered by three teams with shots at the division title and the records to obtain a wild-card spot, if the playoffs started today. The Buccaneers (6-3) suffered an eyesore of a loss, 29-19, to the Washington Football Team on Sunday, while the Carolina Panthers (5-5) demolished the injury-ravaged Arizona Cardinals, 34-10.
Though Carolina beat an Arizona team that was without quarterback Kyler Murray (ankle), receiver DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring) and running back Chase Edmonds (ankle), the win injected new life into its season thanks to a familiar face under center.
Cam Newton isn’t the dominant force of nature he was while winning the 2015 Most Valuable Player Award, but his return added a wrinkle the Panthers’ offense had been missing. Splitting plays with starter P.J. Walker, Newton ran for a touchdown on Carolina’s first possession and threw for another score on the next possession. After the game, Coach Matt Rhule would not tab Newton the starter, leaving defensive coordinators the headache of trying to figure out how to handle the tandem.
Newton, 32, had not played since the Patriots released him before the season began. Injuries, hits and workload (he has over 1,000 carries in his career) have all taken a toll on his velocity and accuracy as a passer. But if he were the full-time starter, Newton presumably would not have to run 15 to 20 times per game as he did in his first stint in Carolina. Running back Christian McCaffrey had 161 total yards against Arizona after missing five games with a hamstring injury.
The Panthers’ win puts them 1 ½ games behind the division-leading Buccaneers, with the New Orleans Saints (5-4) between the two teams. The Saints struggled with injuries — most recently to Alvin Kamara, a top playmaker — in a loss to Tennessee on Sunday and the Tampa Bay looked strangely inept against Washington.
Tom Brady threw a pair of first-quarter interceptions to one of the league’s worst pass defenses. The second was a particularly puzzling miss on first-and-10, where it looked as if Brady and receiver Mike Evans expected different routes. Brady averaged a meager 5.5 yards per attempt outside of his one touchdown to Evans.
Further, a Bucs defense that once flustered Patrick Mahomes at his peak — on the Super Bowl stage — was embarrassed at game’s end. Leading, 23-19, in the fourth quarter, Washington strung together a 19-play, 80-yard drive over 10 minutes and 26 seconds. The key play was Taylor Heinicke’s third-and-4 laser to Adam Humphries that kept the drive alive with 3:13 to go. By the time running back Antonio Gibson punched in a touchdown to put Washington up by two scores, only 29 seconds remained.