Panthers’ defense is for real

TAMPA, Fla. — Thomas Davis called Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay a “must-win’’ situation for the Carolina Panthers.

That might have been a bit premature before the eighth game, but at 34, the Pro Bowl linebacker understands there aren’t many opportunities left in his career to win a Super Bowl, and he believes this team has the potential to do that.

Then Davis went out and played like it was “must-win” game.

The entire defense did.

If the Panthers (5-3) are to make a run in the NFC, it appears they’ll have to rely heavily on the league’s third-ranked defense, which didn’t allow a touchdown for the second straight game and third time this season.

Quarterback Cam Newton and the offense continued to be a work in progress in the 17-3 victory at Raymond James Stadium, this time against a Tampa Bay defense that was giving up 408.5 yards and 25.2 points a game.

But the defense played lights-outs against the league’s second-ranked offense, holding the Bucs to 279 total yards and a field goal.

Davis, who played the past two games with a broken rib, played as physical as he has all season. He was so physical on a first-half hit on wide receiver Adam Humphries that he could get a fine from the league to go with the unnecessary roughness penalty he drew.

But it was those types of hits that set the tone on this day, which saw the return of Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and free safety Kurt Coleman.

Kuechly, who missed one game with a concussion, showed why the Panthers are so much better with him. He had eight tackles and a fourth-quarter interception that all but sealed this one with 6:04 remaining.

Interceptions were the only area this defense has been deficient in this season. It hadn’t had one since the opener.

It had two against the Bucs.

The Panthers needed them both with Newton continuing to struggle to find his rhythm. He has six interceptions over the past three games to only two touchdown passes.

His one touchdown pass on Sunday, a 25-yarder to Kelvin Benjamin in the fourth quarter, was critical with Carolina nursing a 10-3 lead. He’d been unsuccessful on deep passes until that point, spending most of the day dinking and dunking the ball to running back Christian McCaffrey and his receivers.

Through three quarters he had just one completion of more than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage.

The running game continued to struggle, too, as Newton, with 44 yards, led the team in rushing for the third straight week. This has to be a concern moving forward for a team that prides itself on a power running game.

But as long as the Panthers continue to play defense the way they are now, they have a chance.

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