CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- General manager Jason Licht had tears in his eyes. Front-office members pumped their fists in jubilation and hugged one another. It wasn't pretty, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers managed to knock off a nemesis that they hadn't beaten in the past six tries by upsetting the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers, 17-14, on Monday night.
"It’s huge. For a lot of us, this was our first Monday night game," receiver Mike Evans said. "We prepare for moments like this and it was big for us to get the win against a division opponent that we haven’t beaten in such a long time. I think this game will boost a lot of people's confidence."
Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston engineered a game-winning drive, capped by a 38-yard field goal by rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo, who shook off two earlier misses to deliver the win, improving the Bucs to 2-0 in the NFC South. And considering they are 4-12 over the past five years in games decided by three points or less, they'll take it.
The Bucs were shorthanded, missing their top two running backs -- Doug Martin, who suffered a hamstring injury in Week 2 and Charles Sims, who was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury about five hours before kickoff. Jacquizz Rodgers, who wasn't even on the roster in Week 1, got the start, rushing for 101 yards on 30 carries. He also caught five passes for 28 receiving yards.
Rodgers' effectiveness meant fewer risks for Winston, who is 0-5 when attempting more than 40 passes in a game. Heading into Monday night's game, Winston was averaging 44 pass attempts through four games and was second in the league in interceptions, behind Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Against the Panthers, he completed 18 of 30 passes for 219 yards, a touchdown and most importantly, no interceptions. The Bucs were able to get back to truly being a run-first team, which has been their offensive identity under coach Dirk Koetter but was missing after Martin's injury.
That's not to say Winston didn't make clutch throws. He found Evans along the far sideline for a 26-yard touchdown and threw a dart to Adam Humphries for the Bucs' first successful two-point conversion attempt of the season, making it 14-14 with less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
They had their share of obstacles on the defensive side of the ball and on special teams, too, where Aguayo missed a pair of field goals, including a 46-yard attempt that would have given the Bucs the lead with 3:33 to go.
Winston had no problems with the way the game unfolded for his kicker and former college teammate because Aguayo made the one that mattered most.
"When y’all talk about 'struggle,' all I see is him kicking the game-winning field goal," said Winston of Aguayo, whose four misses are the most in the NFL. "Struggling, I don’t hear that. I don’t hear negatives. I just hear Roberto Aguayo kicking the game-winning field goal."
The Bucs were missing three starters along the defensive line, including Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. His replacement? Channing Ward, an undrafted free-agent rookie who got his first NFL snap two weeks ago.
They were also without Robert Ayers, their top edge rusher who is still recovering from an ankle injury from Week 2. His replacement? Another undrafted rookie free agent, DaVonte Lambert, who forced a fumble that was recovered by William Gholston.
The Panthers were without some of their stars, too -- no Cam Newton, no Jonathan Stewart and no Michael Oher. Backup quarterback Derek Anderson, who beat the Bucs twice last season, still managed to carve them up with tight end Greg Olsen, who had a career-high 181 receiving yards on nine catches. The Bucs managed to keep Olsen from scoring, though, thanks to a touchdown-saving interception by Brent Grimes in the end zone on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, keeping the game tied at 14-14.
Will defensive coordinator Mike Smith cringe when he sees his linebackers continuously biting on play-action and getting out of position against Olsen because Anderson faked a handoff and rolled out on a bootleg? Yes. Will Koetter face-palm when he sees those two misses again from Aguayo? You bet. And you know Howard Jones will get an earful for roughing the kicker on what would have been a three-and-out.
But for the time being, does that really matter? Although the Bucs are a game below .500 heading into the bye week, being 2-0 in the NFC South isn't too shabby for a franchise that has finished last in the division the past three years.
"It was pretty and perfect to me," Grimes said of how the game's final moments unfolded. "[The offense] scored with no time left. That's as good as it gets to me. I'm happy about it. It means a lot to get a win with the final seconds running off the clock. It don't get much better than that."