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October 24. 2013 11:52PM

NFL: Newton lifts Panthers past winless Buccaneers before a sparse crowd

TAMPA, Fla. -- Quarterback Cam Newton stayed hot, Tampa Bay stayed cold and the Panthers broke through the .500 barrier for the first time in five years.

Newton rushed for a season-high 55 yards and accounted for three touchdowns to lead the Panthers to a 31-13 win over the hapless Buccaneers on Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium, which featured large swaths of empty seats.

The Panthers (4-3) won their third in a row and have a winning record for the first time during the regular season since Week 17 in 2008, a span of 70 games.

The Bucs (0-7) have lost 12 of their last 13 games, dating to last season, under embattled, second-year coach Greg Schiano. On a day when the Bucs hosted the league's only game, Schiano awoke to find a "Fire Schiano" billboard had been unveiled in Tampa.

But he'll get little empathy from the Panthers, who will take the weekend off before hosting Atlanta in another NFC South game Nov. 3 in Charlotte.

Newton came into Thursday's game on a roll, having posted two of his three highest single-game completion percentages and passer ratings in victories against Minnesota and St. Louis. He combined to complete 35 of 43 passes for 446 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, in the wins over the Vikings and Rams.

Newton completed 23 of 32 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns against the Bucs, and also ran for a score.

Newton's performance was in stark contrast to his showing in the Panthers' 36-7 loss to the Giants during a Thursday night game last season, when Newton finished with three interceptions and a career-low 40.6 passer rating.

"Cam Newton learned his lesson a year ago on a Thursday night when they played against the New York Giants. Trying to put a show on for America, he failed miserably," Deion Sanders said during NFL's Network pregame show. "He understands the game now and what it takes to be this type of big-time player."

The Panthers led 14-6 at the half, and could have been up by more. Leading 14-3, a streaking Ted Ginn Jr. had a perfectly thrown pass by Newton go through his hands.

Newton was 13 of 18 for 149 yards and a touchdown in the first half.

After forcing a three-and-out on the Bucs' first possession, the Panthers put together an impressive 15-play, 70-yard touchdown drive to go up 7-0 on Newton's 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen.

The Panthers overcame a personal foul penalty on fullback Mike Tolbert early in the nearly nine-minute drive. They also converted three third downs, including two on Newton runs _ a sneak and a 16-yard scramble on third-and-12.

The Bucs answered with a 47-yard field goal by Rian Lindell on their next drive to cut the lead to 7-3 with 1:24 left in first quarter. It was the first points allowed by the Panthers' defense in the first quarter this season.

The Panthers scored again on their second drive, going 80 yards in six plays before DeAngelo Williams' 12-yard touchdown run. Williams eluded two tacklers on his first touchdown run of the season.

It was only the second rushing touchdown allowed by the Bucs, who entered the game tied with Baltimore for the fewest allowed.

Glennon had two negative-yardage plays in the first half as a result of bad snaps by backup center Ted Larsen. The Bucs shuffled their line due to the absence of guard Carl Nicks, one of three Tampa Bay players diagnosed with MRSA this season.

Larsen's second poor snap forced the Bucs to settle for a 48-yard field goal by Lindell to pull the Bucs to 14-6 with 4:03 left in the second quarter.

Newton's 6-yard scramble for a touchdown increased the Panthers' lead to 21-6 midway through the third quarter.

After Colin Jones recovered Eric Page's fumbled punt, the Panthers took over at the Bucs' 29 and took advantage of the short field. Four plays later, Newton found Tolbert for a 3-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the fourth quarter to pad the Panthers' lead to 28-6.

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