Bucs QB Winston joins Dan Marino in elite company
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By STEVE REED
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Few have ever compared Jameis Winston to Dan Marino - until now.
Winston, who turns 24 in January, has tied the Miami Dolphins legend for the most NFL touchdown passes before his 24th birthday with 68, according to Elias Sports Bureau. He tied the mark with an 18-yard pass to former college teammate Bobo Wilson, but Tampa Bay lost 22-19 .
"It doesn't really matter if you have those games when you lose," said Winston, who was 21-for-27 for 367 yards and a touchdown, but three fumbles against Carolina. "I have to say, a bunch of unfortunate things just happen to us. We just have to get better."
Through three seasons, Winston has 41 interceptions with one game to play. Marino had 43 picks in his first three seasons.
Still, Bucs coach Dirk Koetter called Winston a "warrior."
Wilson joined Florida State in 2013 with Winston, but Winston left after two seasons. Four of Wilson's eight college touchdown catches came from Winston. The teammates took different roads to Tampa, Winston as a top pick and Wilson as an undrafted free agent.
"In college, he was always good," Wilson said of Winston. "He's still young and has lots to learn, like myself, and we'll keep getting better."
REASON FOR CONCERN: Carolina's offense had been rolling coming into the weekend but stumbled against Tampa Bay - which could be some cause from concern.
Carolina had just 78 yards yards at halftime - the fewest in any first half since Cam Newton became Panthers quarterback in 2011. Carolina ran 21 plays for an average gain of 3.7 yards and was stopped on four of its five third down plays.
"It was self-inflicted," Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess said. "We missed guys here, we missed guys there. We could never get a roll started. The defense kept us in the game."
The first-round pick out of Stanford had two catches for 19 yards, giving him 75 receptions for 611 yards and five scores with one game to play. McCaffrey has also run the ball 111 times for 421 yards, providing the Panthers with a versatile weapon.
"I didn't know what to expect coming in," McCaffrey said. "All I focus on is what I can control. That's when the ball is in my hands, try to make a play and try to do whatever I can to move the ball north."
BYRD GROUNDED: Damiere Byrd's 103-yard kickoff return late in the second quarter is the longest in Panthers' history, but the receiver's availability going forward is uncertain.
Byrd's return gave the Panthers a 12-6 lead with 2:43 left in the first half, but he injured his knee on his next return, a 20-yarder on the opening kickoff of the third quarter. He was questionable to return, but did not. Byrd also had a 31-yard reception Sunday and has steadily filled a larger role in the offense after the team traded Kelvin Benjamin and Curtis Samuel went on injured reserve.
"I don't think it surprises anybody in this locker room what he's been able to do," teammate Luke Kuechly said.
CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR: Tampa Bay's loss marked its second five-game losing streak of the season, despite the team playing better and keeping games close. The Bucs were within a touchdown in four of those five recent losses, and seven of 11 overall.
"We aren't a bad football team," said Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "It's just not going our way. Look at how that (Carolina) game ended. . It's not like we're getting destroyed. Even when we are down and out, we always fight back."
All five losses in the Bucs' current slide came against teams fighting for their playoff hopes. They'll end the season hosting the Saints, who can win the NFC South title with a victory.
Stringers Justin Parker and Eli Pacheco contributed to this report.
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Updated December 24, 2017