Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Just Like the First Time

Thursday Notes: The Bucs-Panthers series remains red-hot and extremely significant despite Carolina’s five-game win streak...Plus, a practice squad move and more

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LB Derrick Brooks knows that the Bucs and Panthers usually have similar formulas for winning ballgames

The Carolina Panthers have beaten the Tampa Bay Buccaneers five times in a row.

That's tough sledding for the Bucs, who since 2002 have been battling the Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons for supremacy of perhaps the NFL's most consistently excellent division. It is also, one would suspect, a confidence booster for the Panthers as the two teams prepare to do battle for first place in the South this Sunday.

That is, if it actually happened. Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden isn't so sure.

"I don't remember that," said Gruden of the Panthers' streak against his squad. "I really don't."

Gruden got a laugh when he made that claim after the Bucs' afternoon practice on Wednesday, and indeed it's hard to take him too seriously given the sheer volume of game film the man watches. One suspects, in fact, that he is intimately familiar with every detail, good and bad, from those five games.

But the point is well-made. The Bucs won't be thinking about previous losses when they take the field in Charlotte on Sunday, and so those games will really have little impact on this latest outcome.

"We're coming off a big win," said Gruden, referring to the Bucs' intra-division decision over New Orleans on Sunday. "I don't give a damn about the five-game [streak]. Twelve [road] games in a row we'd lost to Green Bay. I don't know if we'd ever won in the Metrodome. We've had so many negative losing streaks around here, if I had a dime for all of them I wouldn't be here today, I promise you that.

"We're going to play this game like it's the first time we've ever met and we'll see what happens."

Ask the Falcons how much series history means.

For most of the last three years, the Bucs, Falcons and Panthers have been engaged in a weird, circular ritual of tag-team dominance. Sure, the Bucs have lost five in a row to Carolina, but they've also won five of their last seven against Atlanta. Meanwhile, the Falcons had won five of their last six against Carolina, including all five in which quarterback Michael Vick played, before last weekend.

Who's better than whom? Who knows? All three teams have made the NFC Championship Game over the last three seasons and all three are in the thick of the playoff hunt again.

But, last Sunday, the Falcons went to Charlotte and lost 24-6 to the Panthers, who have won eight of their last nine this fall. It's doubtful that Carolina was worried about its recent history against the Falcons when Sunday's game began.

Similarly, the Bucs aren't conceding anything to the Panthers this weekend. They do, however, expect it to be a hard-fought game, one that will require their best effort to win. The Bucs don't necessarily like the Panthers, but they do consider them a very formidable opponent.

"I think it's a mutual disrespect," said cornerback Brian Kelly. "They don't care much for us, we don't care much for them. But in the end, they know we're a good football team and we know they're a good football team. We enjoy playing each other. They were able to come into our home and get a win and we've got to go out there and do the same."

The Bucs will be fighting for more than a series split. A win would knot the two teams at the top of the division and it would even give Tampa Bay a slight edge – at that point – in the tiebreaker system. A loss would put the Bucs two games behind the Panthers with three to play, and it would basically be a three-game deficit given Carolina's sweep of the head-to-head series.

A loss would not knock the Bucs out of the NFC playoff race; not even close. However, given that they would probably end up as Wild Card entrants if they made it, a return trip to Charlotte in January would be no surprise. If the Bucs can beat the Panthers on the road – and they are completely confident they can – this weekend would be a good time to prove it.

"It is a playoff game," said linebacker Ryan Nece. "That is what we are fighting for, so in essence, if you do not win these types of games you get knocked out of the playoffs. So in our mind it is a playoff game."

The Bucs are not framing Sunday's game as a battle for the division title; Gruden made that clear on Wednesday. There is one quarter of the season to play and each game is likely to be supremely significant, no matter what happens in Week 13. Still, there is no denying the importance of this rematch with the Panthers.

"Obviously, it's a battle for first place," said defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. "It's going to go a long way toward deciding not only who wins this division but who puts themselves in position for the playoff run as far as seeding and stuff like that."

It could also prove, as far as the Bucs are concerned, that the Panthers' win streak in the series is not indicative of overall dominance. The first three games of those five were incredibly close, often turning on remarkable or unbelievable plays. Even the most recent game, a 34-14 Carolina victory on November 6 that represents the Bucs' only loss by more than five points all season, could have easily gone differently, most Tampa Bay players feel.

That game hinged on turnovers, third-down conversions and pressure on the quarterback. The formula could easily work in the opposite direction this weekend.

"They're very similar to us in terms of [being] a defensive-dominated team," said linebacker Derrick Brooks. "If the defense is playing well, stopping the run and getting turnovers, that correlates to wins. That's very similar to us. If we're playing well, we're stopping the run and we're getting turnovers our offense will turn them into points."

The Bucs know how quickly division supremacy can change hands. They beat Carolina twice in 2002 on the way to a Super Bowl championship, then started out their title defense in 2003 with a rousing 17-0 win at Philadelphia. The next weekend, a blocked extra point at the end of regulation led to a 12-9 Carolina win in Tampa, and before you knew it the Bucs were 7-9 and the Panthers were in the Super Bowl. Last season, both the Bucs and Panthers slumped and the Falcons represented the South in the conference title game. This year, all three teams remain in the running for the division crown with four games to play, and everything that's happened in the past four years suggest it's going to be a fight to the finish.

"I just know that we've got a lot of respect for them," said Gruden. "Hopefully the feeling is mutual. This is a division that's just come together recently. Some of the natural rivalries are starting to shape and this is certainly one of them."

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Bucs Add TE to Practice Squad

The Buccaneers filled an open spot on their practice squad on Wednesday by signing former Minnesota Vikings tight end Steven Farmer.

The Bucs had been one player under the eight-man limit on the practice squad since Saturday, when kicker Todd France was promoted from that crew to the active roster. The addition of Farmer also gave the Bucs four tight ends again, at least for practice; they had released first-year tight end Nate Lawrie over the weekend in order to sign France.

The 6-4, 253-pound Farmer played his college ball at Tennessee State. He signed with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2003 but spent his rookie season on injured reserve. The Vikings released Farmer just before training camp in 2004.

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Bucs Help out at the Met Again

After the bustle of Thanksgiving food distribution, Metropolitan Ministries goes back to work collecting toys to give children of needy families during the holiday season. On Tuesday afternoon, several Buccaneers lent their names to the toy drive at the Ministries' Holiday Tent.

Bucs running back Earnest Graham, linebacker Ryan Nece, safety Jermaine Phillips, quarterback Chris Simms, guard Matt Stinchcomb and defensive end Dewayne White joined players from Tampa's other professional sports teams in signing autographs in exchange for the donation of a new, unwrapped toy.

The line formed well before the players arrived, and those who brought toys received more than just autographs. Throughout the evening, drawings were held for additional team merchandise, and local radio personalities kept everyone entertained.

"It's a great situation to come out here and have people give toys," Phillips said. "There are a lot of kids out there who really don't get to have the Christmas a lot of us are accustomed to. If we can make those dreams and wishes come true for them, it makes it all worth it."

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