A year ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the young darlings of the NFC South.
Now, they're just young.
Last December, 22-year-old quarterback Josh Freeman was finishing up a 10-6 season that left the Bucs only a tie-breaker short of a wild-card spot.
On Sunday, after Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton carved them up for the second time within 20 days, the Bucs assured themselves of a last-place division finish for the fourth time in the past eight years.
"He's a big, talented guy doing the same things he did in college,'' Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber said of Newton after Saturday's 48-16 loss to the surging Panthers. "He presents a lot of challenges.''
Tampa Bay's ravaged defense had no answers for Newton, who threw for three touchdowns and scored on a 49-yard run up the middle, dodging safety Tanard Jackson and stiff-arming cornerback E.J. Biggers along the way.
Newton didn't stop running until he ramped up the cheers by handing the football to a youngster in the front row.
In Carolina's 38-19 victory at Tampa on Dec. 4, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn ran for three touchdowns and threw for one.
"When that guy gets the ball, it's all eyes on him,'' Bucs rookie defensive end Da'Quan Bowers said of Newton, who completed 12 of 17 passes for 171 yards while topping Peyton Manning's previous NFL record for most passing yards (3,739) by a rookie quarterback. "You've got to read your keys carefully and if you make a mistake, he'll gash you like he did to us today.''
While the Bucs (4-11) enter Sunday's season finale at Atlanta in the throes of a nine-game losing streak, the Panthers (6-9) have won four of five, generating momentum and stoking Carolina's season-ticket campaign for 2012.
Early in the second quarter, the Bucs were still celebrating Arrelious Benn's 4-yard touchdown catch off a replay reversal when Newton and Brandon LaFell hooked up for a 91-yard score, matching the longest play from scrimmage against Tampa Bay in franchise history.
On Dec. 23, 1995, Detroit's Scott Mitchell threw a 91-yard touchdown to Brett Perriman in a 37-10 rout of the Bucs.
Newton lofted a precise pass over the head of Biggers to LaFell at the Carolina 32. LeFell raced the rest of the way for the longest scoring reception in Panthers history.
"The players always know that with Cam back there, even though a guy might be in his face, Cam is a big, strong dude who can keep his eyes down the field,'' said LaFell.
With a ground game that averaged 11.5 yards per carry through the first 45 minutes, Newton threw sparingly but effectively.
He was lifted for backup Derek Anderson after throwing an 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jeremy Shockey on the first snap of the fourth quarter.
"They played better than us today in all phases and Cam Newton's good,'' said Jackson. "The kid's got a great upside.''
As the Bucs can wearily attest, Newton's present doesn't look too shabby, either.