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Bucs Return to Division Play, Rekindle Dramatic Rivalry with Panthers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are coming off back-to-back games against the NFL's Ohio denizens, and in terms of all-time head-to-head action, it takes some creative license to drum up an intense rivalry between the Bucs and either the Browns or the Bengals.

Um…maybe the Browns are still upset about that one time Rich McKay fleeced them in the trade of draft-bust tight end Harold Bishop in 1995? (Said trade led to the selection of Mike Alstott…know your team history, Bucs fans!) Maybe the Bengals didn't like the Bucs trying to upstage their redheaded-ness by bringing in Ryan Jensen and Beau Allen in the offseason? Sure, that's plausible.

That's not really going to be a problem this week. The Buccaneers head to Charlotte in Week Nine to take on the Carolina Panthers, and there is no lack of emotion in that rivalry. I mean, Brad Johnson was once so sick with animus towards the Panthers that he couldn't suit up for a game in the Super Bowl season, leaving the Bucs to squeak by with the combination of Rob Johnson, Shaun King and Martin Gramatica's right leg. (Okay, that might not be entirely true. Brad "The Bull" Johnson was legitimately ill that day.)

The Buccaneers rarely get out of Charlotte without some radical bouts of emotion, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Just last year the Bucs were trying to hold onto a four-point lead over the heavily-favored Panthers in the closing seconds in Week 16, needing a stop on fourth-and-three from the five. Then the since-departed Chris Baker jumped offside, making it third-and-one, and Jonathan Stewart just barely got the ball past the sticks. Oh, and then Cam Newton fumbled the snap but had it bounce right back to him before he Supermanned over the top for the winning points. But wait, there's more. Jameis Winston lost the ball on a sack on the next play from scrimmage, killing any remaining slim comeback hopes, and drew a penalty for vehemently arguing the ruling. You can bet an unhappy plane flight back to Tampa ensued.

The year before that, the Bucs and Panthers met for a Monday Night Football affair in Week Five and it all came down to another wild end-game sequence. This time, with the game tied at 14-14 with nine minutes left, the Panthers had a first-and-goal at the Buccaneers' one-yard line only to see Derek Anderson intercepted in the end zone by Brent Grimes. (Surely if Newton had been available for that game the play call from the one would have been different!). The Bucs then got in position for a go-ahead field goal but rookie Roberto Aguayo missed from 46 yards with 3:30 left. The Panthers elected to punt from midfield after Akeem Spence stone-walled Cameron Artis-Payne on third-and-two, probably anticipating overtime. Instead, Winston led an impressive drive from his own 14, Kony Ealy contributed a key 15-yard facemask penalty to position Aguayo for a 38-yard try and this time it was good as time expired. You can bet a very joyous plan flight back to Tampa ensued.

Newton, Steve Smith, Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins (he of the infamous blocked kicks through the "A-Gap" in 2003) have always succeeded in bringing big plays and plenty of emotion to this series, which kicked up a notch when the two teams joined the new NFC South in 2002. Cadillac Williams often had big days against the Panthers but probably also has sour memories of Charlotte, where he suffered his first major knee injury. Antonio Bryant had a game for the ages in Bank of America Stadium, including one of the most amazing catches you'll ever see. A Monday night showdown in Charlotte late in 2005 proved to be one of the most rousing wins in (relatively) recent Bucs history and essentially decided the division crown. And, yes, there was that unforgettable 12-9 win in the Super Bowl season that we'll describe in more detail below.

The point is, no artificial drama needed this week. The Bucs and Panthers never fail to create plenty of the real thing when they meet.

Here's the all-time series scoreboard:

Tampa Bay 13

Carolina 22

Buccaneers' Highlights:

1. Tampa Bay 20, Carolina 10, Dec. 11, 2005

The Buccaneers and Panthers battled for division supremacy throughout 2005, but the Panthers had an ace in their hand thanks to a dominant 34-14 win in Week Nine. When the Bucs went to Charlotte for the rematch in Week 14, it was the middle game of a weird stretch in the schedule that looked like a minefield for a postseason hopeful: three straight road games in the span of 14 days. The Bucs were clear underdogs to the 9-3 Panthers on the road, but they controlled the action for much of the afternoon, thanks to Ronde Barber and Cadillac Williams. Barber had a critical interception near the Bucs' goal line in the fourth quarter, plus a sack of Jake Delhomme that was a milestone play in his career, making him the first cornerback in NFL history with 20 interceptions and 20 sacks. Williams ran 29 times for 112 yards and two touchdowns and the Bucs never trailed after his first-quarter score. The Bucs and Panthers would go on to finish with identical 11-5 records but the Bucs would get the division title on a tiebreaker.

2. Tampa Bay 12, Carolina 9, Oct. 27, 2002

With Brad Johnson too sick to play on this afternoon smack dab in the middle of the Bucs' Super Bowl run, the team turned to Rob Johnson, whose saving grace during a 179-yard, one-interception performance was that opposing quarterback Randy Fasani, in his only NFL start, could do even less against Tampa Bay's incredible defense. Buccaneer defenders caught almost as many of Fasani's 18 passes (three interceptions) as did the Panthers' offensive players (five catches for 46 yards), with S John Lynch getting two of those picks. Still, the Bucs couldn't run the ball, only got into the red zone once all day and had no plays longer than 22 yards. And, as such, they found themselves losing, 9-3, as the fourth quarter began. Luckily, the Buccaneers had one remaining weapon who was on the top of his game that day: Martin "Automatica" Gramatica. Gramatica started the comeback with a 52-yard field goal with 10 minutes left. Seven minutes later the Bucs were still trailing as they punted away from their own 21…and miraculously got the ball right back when Steve Smith fumbled and Aaron Stecker recovered at the Carolina 42. No first downs followed but Gramatica calmly nailed a 53-yarder to tie the game. Finally, in the closing seconds, Rob Johnson scrambled on third-and-nine from the Carolina 44 and got just enough for a first down but was hurt on the play. Shaun King came in for one play and it was a big one, a seven-yard completion to Karl Williams that set up Gramatica for the 47-yard game-winner.

3. Tampa Bay 27, Carolina 21 (OT), Nov. 18, 2012

The Buccaneers opened their 2012 campaign with a 16-10 home win over the Panthers that included another important late-game pick by Barber and a run defense that held Cam Newton and the Panthers to a team-record 10 yards. When the two teams got together again in Week 11 in Charlotte, it looked like Newton and the Panthers would get their revenge, taking a 21-10 lead with six minutes to play. However, one of the more impressive comebacks in Bucs history followed, beginning with a crisp two-minute field goal drive keyed by Vincent Jackson's 22-yard catch. The Panthers picked up two first downs in their subsequent "four-minute drive," but Ahmad Black stopped Newton one yard short on a third-and-12 scramble and Carolina punted with just over a minute left. Josh Freeman was able to get the Bucs down to the Carolina 24, spiking the ball with 20 seconds left. On the next play, Vincent Jackson made a brilliant catch down the middle for the score, and then also caught Freeman's pass on the necessary two-point conversion. The Bucs got the ball first in overtime and never gave it up, with Doug Martin's 27-yard run setting up Freeman's 15-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Clark.

Panthers' Highlights:

1. Carolina 12, Tampa Bay 9, Sept. 14, 2003

Yes, each team's highlight list includes a 12-9 win, and they came in back-to-back years and essentially defined the diverging fortunes of the Buccaneers in '02 and '03. While the win noted above was a successful comeback that proved critical to the team's title run, this one was another comeback that fell short in the most unexpected and depressing of ways. Weird losses and key injuries told the tale for the Bucs in '03 as they tried unsuccessfully to defend their title. In this case, the Bucs returned home from an invigorating Week One win in Philadelphia only to come out completely flat against their division foes. The defense held Carolina to 258 yards and no touchdowns on the day, but the Buccaneers got nothing out of three early drives into Panthers territory, one ending on a blocked field goal and another on an interception. Brad Johnson and the Bucs' offense didn't really wake up until the two-minute warning, when they were down, 9-3, and had the ball on their own 18. Johnson hit Karl Williams for 43 yards and Keyshawn Johnson for 17 down to the Carolina six, where the offense hurried up to spike the ball with five seconds left. That was enough time for Johnson to hit Keenan McCardell for the game-tying touchdown as time expired. It was not a game-winning touchdown because Gramatica's extra point was blocked by Kris Jenkins. Carolina won it in overtime on a 47-yard field goal by John Kasay.

2. Carolina 38, Tampa Bay 23, Dec. 8, 2008

Above we described a Buccaneer win in 2012 in which the team set a franchise record (since broken) by allowing just 10 rushing yards. This game was, shall we say, the other side of that coin. Carolina ran for an incredible 299 yards on 37 carries, just shy of the most the Buccaneers have ever allowed in a game. Jonathan Stewart started and had 115 yards and two touchdowns but was overshadowed by DeAngelo Williams and his 186 yards and two scores. The game featured two teams that came into the contest with 9-3 records and a division title in dispute but a pretty clear path to the playoffs. Carolina did go on to win the division but the Bucs' season unraveled from here as it was the first of four straight losses to end the season and Jon Gruden's seven-year run as head coach.

3. Carolina 24, Tampa Bay 0, Dec. 1, 1996

This is the only shutout for either team in the series and it starkly demonstrated the difference between two eras of NFL expansion. When the Buccaneers and Seahawks began play in 1976, before the advent of real free agency, they were forced to stock their rosters with washed-up veterans and untested rookies. The result for the Buccaneers was a rough beginning, with 26 straight losses before a very impressive rise to playoff status in season four. The Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars, however, had the benefit of free agency and lots of money to spend and were able to build contending teams almost immediately. The Buccaneers did beat Carolina in its inaugural 1995 season, but by December of '96 the Panthers were steaming towards a conference championship game in just their second campaign (as were the Jaguars in the AFC). Tampa Bay was about to start its own extended run of playoff contention under Tony Dungy and had won their three previous games during a second-half turnaround in '96, but the Panthers interrupted that with a defensive smothering. Actually, the Buccaneers outgained Carolina, 284 yards to 215, but the Panthers won the turnover battle, 4-0, including a fumble returned for a touchdown. Tampa Bay never got into the red zone until the closing seconds of the game, and saw three of their last five drives end on failed fourth downs.

Bucs' Top Performers Against Panthers:

Among players currently on the roster, here are a few Buccaneers who have fared well against the Panthers.

·     WR Mike Evans…8 games, 36 receptions for 502 yards and 3 touchdowns, 26 first downs, 72.2 yards per game

·     LB Lavonte David…12 games, 100 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 7 QB hits, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 interception, 3 passes defensed

·     CB Brent Grimes…7 games, 28 tackles, 3 interceptions (1 returned for a touchdown), nine passes defensed, 2 tackles for loss

Panthers' Top Performers Against Bucs:

·     QB Cam Newton…11 games, 8-3 record, 188 of 298 passing (63.1%), 2,382 yards, 216.5 yards per game, 16 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 98 carries for 444 yards, 9 touchdowns, 4.53 yards per carry

·     DE Julius Peppers…19 games, 63 tackles, 19.5 sacks, 14 QB hits, 5 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, 1 interception (returned for a touchdown), 4 passes defensed

·     TE Greg Olsen…14 games, 56 receptions for 708 yards and 2 touchdowns, 12.6 yards per catch, 71.4 yards per game

Bucs' Game-by-Game Record vs. Panthers:

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Series Notes:

·     Overall Season Series: Carolina leads, 22-13

·     Bucs' Home Record: 6-11

·     Bucs' Road Record: 7-11

·     Current Streak: Lose 2 (2017)

·     Buccaneers' Longest Winning Streak: 3 (1998-2002)

·     Panthers' Longest Winning Streak: 6 (2013-15)

·     Regular Season Point Total: Buccaneers 594, Panthers 764

·     Most Points in a Game, Tampa Bay: Buccaneers 31-16 (2010)

·     Most Points in a Game, Carolina: Panthers 48-16 (2011)

·     Most Points, both teams: 64, Panthers 48-16 (2011)

·     Fewest Points in a Game, Tampa Bay: Panthers 24-0 (1996)

·     Fewest Points in a Game, Carolina: Buccaneers 27-3 (2008)

·     Fewest Points in a Game, both teams: 20: Panthers 17-3 (2017)

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