CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — For a while Sunday, it seemed as though picking up a first down — let alone scoring a touchdown — was a monumental chore for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Such has been the case this season for Lovie Smith's team.
The Bucs failed to break the 17-point barrier for the 11th time this season, Josh McCown had three turnovers and the Bucs lost for the ninth time in the past 10 games 19-17 to Carolina.
"It feels like we have run the ball and thrown the ball effectively at times, but we've got to be able to do it on the same day — and we've just not done that," McCown said.
On Sunday, Smith said, "The passing game could never get totally into sync with it."
McCown was limited to 154 yards passing. He fumbled twice on sacks and was intercepted on a last-second heave backed up near his own end zone.
The Bucs' offense was completely ineffective in the third quarter, limited to minus-2 yards on their first four possessions of the third quarter. A sack-fumble by McCown at his own 4 led to Carolina's go-ahead touchdown.
"That was really what I think tilted the game was the third quarter — that slow start," McCown said.
That, and turnovers.
The Bucs (2-12) turned it over three times — all in the second half. But Smith refused to pin the team's problems on his veteran quarterback.
"We're always talking about securing the ball and you want the quarterback to do that," Smith said. "But it's on a lot more than the quarterback when he gets sacked."
Meanwhile, the Panthers are not giving up on the possibility of winning the NFC South with a losing record.
Derek Anderson threw for 277 yards and a touchdown, Graham Gano kicked four field goals and the Panthers stayed alive in the NFC South playoff race.
The win, coupled with Atlanta's loss to Pittsburgh, left the Panthers (5-8-1) ahead of New Orleans in the division by percentage points. The Saints (5-8) play the Chicago Bears on Monday night.
If the Panthers win the division, they will be only the second NFL team to do so with a losing record in a non-strike-shortened season. The 2010 Seattle Seahawks were the other team to accomplish that feat.
"It's pretty crazy," Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. "But we're not going to apologize for it."
Anderson completed 25 of 40 passes and improved to 2-0 as a starter in place of Cam Newton, who missed the game while recovering from a car accident Tuesday that left him with two fractures in his lower back.
Olsen tied a career high with 10 catches for 110 yards, and rookie Kelvin Benjamin had eight grabs for 104 yards.
The Panthers reached or started in Tampa Bay territory on every drive, but managed just one touchdown and settled for five field-goal attempts.
They came in ranked 27th in red zone offense.
The game turned on the opening drive of the second half when Carolina defensive ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison converged to sack McCown at the Tampa Bay 4, jarring the ball loose. Kawann Short recovered, setting up a 2-yard touchdown pass from Anderson to Jerricho Cotchery to give Carolina a 16-10 lead they would never relinquish.
The Panthers had plenty of chances to build on that lead in the third quarter, but struggled to do so.
Jonathan Stewart fumbled at the Tampa Bay 3 on Carolina's next possession and Akeem Spence recovered, keeping it a one-possession game. It was Stewart's first fumble since 2010.
Two other Carolina drives faltered just outside of field-goal range.
The Panthers finally got a 38-yard field goal from Gano to push the lead to 19-10 after Olsen caught his 10th pass on third-and-long to get Carolina into position.
The Bucs, limited to a combined minus-2 yards on their first four possessions in the third quarter, broke through late in the fourth quarter. McCown led an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, running 16 yards for the score with 3:11 left.
The Bucs led 10-9 at halftime behind an 8-yard touchdown pass from McCown to Mike Evans, the rookie receiver's 11th TD catch of the season.
Tampa Bay entered without three defensive starters before losing defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to a knee injury late in the first quarter. He did not return.
NOTES: Doug Martin ran for 96 yards on 14 carries, most of those coming on a 63-yard jaunt in the first half. ... Tampa Bay entered without three defensive starters and lost defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to a hyperextended knee late in the first quarter. He did not return. ... Stewart's fumble was his first since 2010.