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Playoff-bound Panthers riding high behind opportunistic ‘D’

December 24, 2017

Carolina Panthers' Julius Peppers (90) celebrates after a fumble recovery against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Panthers defense appears to be peaking at the right time.

Carolina clinched a postseason berth on Sunday with a 22-19 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in large part behind the play of its defense, which has 15 sacks and 10 takeaways in its last three games.

The Panthers can still clinch the NFC South division title, but it will need help. Carolina (11-4) would need to beat the Falcons on the road and Tampa Bay to knock off the New Orleans Saints next Sunday.

“Now it’s time for us to really put our feet down,” defensive end Mario Addison said. “That was playoff style football.”

The Panthers sacked Jameis Winston six times on Sunday and forced three fumbles, including one by Kawann Short and that sealed the victory in the closing seconds. Officials ruled Julius Peppers recovered the football, which left Winston irate after the play.

“I had the ball that’s the only reason, man,” Winston said. “Fought hard, I had the ball. They gave it to them, so that’s the only reason.”

But perhaps it’s fitting that Peppers recovered — the Panthers defense has been getting all of the breaks of late.

Over the past eight games, the Panthers have forced 17 turnovers and are a plus-11 in turnover margin after struggling in those categories the first half of the season. The Panthers are 7-1 during that span.

Addison said those numbers are great, but the Panthers will need to be even better.

He knows there’s a good chance Carolina will be a wild card team — and the NFC’s fifth seed — meaning it might have to win three straight games on the road to reach the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons. That means playing strong defense is a must away from home.

The Panthers struggled at times on Sunday, allowing six plays of 25 or more yards and Jameis Winston threw for 367 yards and a touchdown.

“In my opinion we played kind of slow,” Addison said. “If we want to continue to win we’ve got to play better. ... We can improve on defense and we will improve.”

But there’s no denying the pass rush is there.

The Panthers came into the game tied for third in the league in sacks. They now have 49 on the season. Peppers has 11, Addison 10 ½ and Short, a defensive tackle, has 7 ½ this season for Carolina.

Wes Horton has 5 1/2 sacks, including three strip-sacks for turnovers.

“Those guys up front played so well and so hard and they make our job on the back end easy,” said Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. “Anytime you get pressure like that and get a guy off their spot it makes our job easy and I’m glad there is a big group of our guys that play well.”

The Panthers can’t afford to let up.

They visit a Falcons team next Sunday that will be playing for their playoff lives.

Earlier this season Carolina beat Atlanta 20-17, despite allowing Matt Ryan to throw for 313 yards and two touchdowns.

The good news for the Panthers is outside linebacker Thomas Davis will be back on the field after missing Sunday’s game. The Georgia native is serving a one-game suspension for his hit last week on Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera likes that his team has some incentive.

“If we win and something crazy happens with New Orleans, I think we win the division,” Rivera said. “There is still a chance. There is still hope. Sometimes that’s all we need.”

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