Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Close Call

The Bucs and Panthers have set a dramatic precedent for their games over the past two seasons, so another down-to-the-wire finish on Sunday in Charlotte would be no surprise

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DE Simeon Rice and the Buccaneers may have gotten to Delhomme several times last year, but the Panther quarterback always had the last word

Twelve weeks into the season, the last two champions of the NFC South – and the last two NFC Super Bowl representatives – meet for the first time. Barring some unusual December circumstances, this first of two games between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers will not factor into the division race in 2004. It may, however, be the turning point for either team's playoff hopes.

At 4-6, the Buccaneers are on the outer edge of the NFC race, but that edge isn't as far removed from the center as one might think. At 3-7, the Panthers are in a stickier situation, though they haven't been mathematically eliminated. A loss for either team on Sunday might turn the playoffs into pipe dreams.

That would be a fitting end for a Bucs-Panthers game. The NFC South is only in its third year; in the first, 2002, the Buccaneers won two hard-fought games against Carolina, including a last-second squeaker in Charlotte, and rode them all the way to the title. Last year, the Panthers turned the tables, winning twice in last-second fashion and thus sailing to the division crown. Both teams eventually won at Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game.

The winner on Sunday in Charlotte would still be well behind the 8-2 Atlanta Falcons, but that isn't likely to lessen the game's intensity. There were obviously no friendships made last year between the Bucs and Panthers, and the down-to-the-wire nature of most of the games repeatedly left both sides believing they were the better team. Each squad's high hopes for 2004 have been undercut somewhat by a damaging run of injuries, but each team appears to be finding itself in the season's second half.

The Bucs have won four of their last six, including Sunday's 35-3 sterilizing of the 49ers, while Carolina has won two in a row, scoring 72 points in the process.

"We have to play great on Sunday because Carolina is still a good football team," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "The film illustrates that. They have had some injuries, but Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker…I still see a lot of the same familiar faces running around on their field."

Carolina lost explosive wide receiver Steve Smith to a broken leg early, then quickly saw its impressive, two-headed running attack disappear thanks to injuries to Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster. All three of those players are on injured reserve, but perhaps the name on that list that hurts the most in Carolina is that of defensive tackle Kris Jenkins.

Jenkins, the massive (6-4, 335), road-grading tackle was the symbol of the Panthers' overtaking of the Bucs last season. In addition to constantly plugging the middle of the line, Jenkins blocked the potential game-winning extra point in Week Two that sent the two teams' fortunes in opposite directions.

Without him, the Panthers have slipped to 22nd on defense overall, including 27th against the run. They were eighth and 11th in those two categories, respectively, in their Super Bowl campaign. However, while they've still given up some significant yardage in recent weeks, the Panthers have recaptured their opportunistic bent on defense, and that has allowed them to rack up 24 or more points in three straight games. Against Arizona on Sunday, Carolina intercepted Cardinals quarterback Shaun King three times and forced five fumbles, recovering one. The weekend before, the Panthers picked off San Fran's Tim Rattay four times and recovered two fumbles.

So it appears as if the Bucs will face an aggressive, blitz-happy defense for the fourth straight weekend.

"They're scoring and they're blitzing, a very reckless style here the last couple of weeks," said Gruden. "I saw they intercepted Shaun three times and caused five or six fumbles. They got after him yesterday. I saw the second half. I believe they blitzed San Francisco 28 out of 31 plays, so they are generating pressure trying to create impact plays and they are scoring on defense now. They're making a lot of big plays."

If Jenkins was the Bucs' nemesis on defense last year, quarterback Jake Delhomme was the bugaboo on offense. Delhomme displayed a knack for making the big play just when the Panthers needed it, sometimes with Buccaneer blitzers right in his face. After the Bucs rallied for a late 24-20 lead at Carolina last year, Delhomme marched the Panthers the length of the field in the closing seconds for the game-winning touchdown.

Delhomme may be without his favorite target with Smith out, but the Panthers still have the league's 14th-ranked passing attack, averaging 220 yards per game and recording 17 touchdowns through the air.

"We all know Jake Delhomme is a good quarterback and they still have [Muhsin] Muhammad, they still have Ricky Proehl," said Gruden. "Keary Colbert, their young rookie receiver is off to a great start."

Of course, the Buccaneers faced the 11th-ranked passing attack last Sunday against San Francisco and gave up only six net passing yards by halftime. Tampa Bay pressured Rattay incessantly and played tight enough coverage to make Rattay hold onto the ball longer than he wanted. The Buccaneers rank second in the NFL in pass defense, allowing just 163.9 yards per game. With the Panthers' running attack shorthanded, the Bucs' ability to corral Delhomme could be the key to the game.

Then again, the key to the game could be one drive, or even one play, late in the fourth quarter. The Bucs and Panthers have set a precedent of dramatic finishes, and one more would hardly be a surprise. Since the team that comes up on the short end of such a finish would also be dealt a serious blow in the playoff hunt, the Bucs just hope they are not looking back on what could have been by Sunday night. That, unfortunately, was the case too often early in the season, which is why the Bucs are fighting an uphill battle despite playing well for the last two months.

"The six losses that we have had, you could take a play or two out," said Gruden. "It is not like we have been beaten by 30 points or been blown out of the stadium. These guys have fought their butt off. We have been in a position to win a lot of these games. If we can complement each other, offense, defense, special teams, we feel like we could be a darn good football team."

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