Minus Christian McCaffrey, Panthers knock off Buccaneers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Somebody forgot to tell the Carolina Panthers they were in tank mode after trading star running back Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers and wide receiver Robbie Anderson to the Arizona Cardinals.

Carolina defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21-3 on Sunday to hand quarterback Tom Brady one of the biggest upsets of his career in terms of being a favorite. It also left Brady with a sub-.500 record (3-4) for the first time since 2002, when the New England Patriots started 3-4.

It was the first win for interim Carolina coach Steve Wilks, who replaced Matt Rhule two weeks ago after Rhule was fired a day after the team fell to 1-4 with a loss to the 49ers.

"I just told them they continue to impress me by the way they overcome adversity," Wilks said of his postgame speech to the players. "That definitely wasn't a team out there that was trying to tank it."

Wilks also referenced the leaguewide speculation that the team might tank for the first pick of the 2023 draft, particularly after McCaffrey was traded late Thursday night.

"It didn't bother me at all because I really keep my focus on the men in this room each and every day," he said. "I just wanted to put it out there to let you know these men in this room have too much character to even fathom anything like that."

The Buccaneers were a 13-point favorite against Carolina (2-5), which had lost 12 of its past 13 games dating back to last season. Brady's biggest upsets in terms of point spreads were in 2007 to the New York Jets (12.5 points), 2012 to Arizona (13.5 points) and 2019 to Miami (17 points). Tampa Bay lost as a 9.5-point favorite last week.

The Panthers knew the odds were stacked against them on the outside, but they never lost faith inside the locker room.

"It hurt us a little bit," linebacker Shaq Thompson said of the McCaffrey trade. "But at the end of the day, everybody knew it was a business decision. We couldn't let that get to us. Regardless, we had to go out there and play the Tampa Bay Bucs.

"Like I told the guys in my little speech, we've got to keep stacking them."

The win left the Panthers only one game back in the NFC South behind Tampa Bay (3-4) and the Atlanta Falcons (3-4), with a road game against Atlanta next on the schedule. They are 2-0 in the division.

They pulled the upset with a defense that held the Buccaneers scoreless in the first three quarters and an efficient offense led by quarterback PJ Walker.

"As you came into the building today, you could just feel the energy," Walker said. "You could just feel the vibe of us wanting to go out there and play this game. We talked last night in our team meeting about making that jump, and today we did."

Walker got a game ball for his part in the upset that saw the Panthers spread the ball around more than they did with McCaffrey, who accounted for almost 75 percent of the offense in last week's loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

Walker said the McCaffrey trade "absolutely" galvanized the team.

"It was a heartbreak for all of us," he said of the trade. "We all knew what Christian meant to this team, this program in general. But for us to go out today and put up (173) rushing, that's a big up to that O-line. That O-line played really good today.

"Our backs had opportunities and they made them."

So did Walker.

The former XFL star had two touchdown passes to improve his record as an NFL starter to 3-1 and make a case for him to remain the starter when Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold return from ankle injuries, perhaps as early as this week.

"When you look at what he did today, it's going to be hard to try to pull him out," said Wilks, a proponent of sticking with the hot hand.

Walker completed four of his first five passes of 20-plus air yards for two touchdowns. He was 5-for-21 with no touchdowns and three interceptions on those passes since entering the league in 2020.

Carolina's running game didn't miss a beat without McCaffrey, who entered the day fourth in the league in total yards from scrimmage. Chuba Hubbard started and had 63 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. D'Onta Foreman added 118 yards on 15 carries.

Hubbard didn't finish out the win, with ESPN's Adam Schefter reporting, via a source, that he suffered a "minor" ankle sprain but "could have come back in if needed."

Four players had at least one rush. Seven had at least one catch, led by DJ Moore with seven catches for 69 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown. The seven pass-catchers tied the season high and was three more than Carolina had a week ago.

"You see what he can do," Thompson said. "You see what this offense can do when everybody touches the ball."

That wasn't so much a knock on how McCaffrey dominated the touches as much as it was the team buying into Wilks' philosophy that the game is about more than one player.

"He was spreading it around," defensive end Brian Burns said of Walker. "Everybody got in their route."

Burns said it's not his call on who starts at quarterback next week, but added, "PJ had an amazing game."

Walker said he'll be ready to go on Monday regardless of whether he's the starter or backup. But he took satisfaction in the staff showing confidence in him to throw under all circumstances on Sunday, beginning with a deep pass that should have been caught on the first play.

"Just that I can be trusted with the football in my hands, make the right decisions at the right time," Walker said. "Even late in the game, when we had an opportunity to throw the ball, I made the right decision."

Wilks, as happy as he was with his first win as coach of his hometown team, couldn't wait to begin preparation for the Falcons.

"It's about trying to win football games," he said. "I'm excited about the win today. It's a lot we can build on."