Panthers fall to Bucs badly in finale, many questions remain for offseason

Panthers are 10-23 in two seasons under coach Matt Rhule
Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule talks to down judge Patrick Turner (13) during the...
Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule talks to down judge Patrick Turner (13) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)(Jason Behnken | AP)
Published: Jan. 11, 2022 at 11:21 AM EST
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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Once the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took care of the Carolina Panthers 41-17 on Sunday in Tampa.

Tampa Bay will host Philadelphia in the wild-card round next Sunday afternoon. Earning the No. 2 seed ensures a second home game in two weeks if the Bucs beat the Eagles.

Tom Brady topped 5,000 yards passing for the second time in his career, joining Drew Brees as the only players in NFL history with multiple 5,000-yard seasons.

Brady completed 29 of 37 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns before taking the last half of the fourth quarter off, finishing with a career-best 5,316 yards passing and a Bucs single-season record 43 TD passes for the defending Super Bowl champions.

Mike Evans caught two of Brady’s TD passes, giving him a club-record 14 scoring receptions this year. He also became the first player in NFL history to begin a career with eight consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 yards receiving.

Carolina (5-12) finished on a seven-game losing streak that leaves coach Matt Rhule’s future in question. The Panthers are 10-23 in two seasons under the former Temple and Baylor coach, who signed a seven-year contract to move to the NFL in 2020.

Carolina coach Matt Rhule and team owner David Tepper met before the Panthers’ game at Tampa.

Rhule said the future, not his job status, was the topic.

“I’m never going to speak for Dave,” Rhule said. “Every conversation I’ve had with him he’s been supportive. I talked to him today … We’re talking about the offseason, things we have to do moving forward.”

“Since I took the job, we’ve had a plan,” he added. “I liked to be further ahead with the plan. We’re at a very important time right now for Carolina to get over the hump.”

The Panthers are 10-23 in two seasons under the former Temple and Baylor coach, who signed a seven-year contract in 2020.

“What I told them was, I’m going to coach until somebody tells me I’m not coaching,” Rhule said.

Rhule’s status is one of many questions the Panthers will need to answer during a long offseason.

Quarterback Sam Darnold, who went 4-7 as the team’s starter, is under contract for more than $18 million next season.

“I’m not worried about that right now,” said Darnold, who had 29 of 42 passes for 219 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in the season finale. “I just got done playing a game. I’ll talk to a bunch of the front office guys tomorrow, and I’ll talk to coach Rhule and my coaches and kind of go from there.”

Quarterback Cam Newton, who rejoined the team for his another stint this season, is an unrestricted free agent and is not expected back.

The Panthers entered Sunday tied for 30th in offense, ranking near the bottom in rushing (21), passing (29) and scoring (29). They are searching for a new offensive coordinator after Joe Brady was fired 12 games into the season.

The Panthers are 0-4 against Tampa Bay under Rhule, getting outscored 150-63.

Carolina’s offensive line has been abysmal, allowing seven sacks in the two games before Sunday’s contest, and the Panthers gave up two to the Bucs.

Carolina WR D.J. Moore caught seven passes and finished with career-best 93 overall. He landed hard on his shoulder attempting to make a diving catch and left the game, but was able to return.

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