The Buccaneers and Panthers have played a series of very close games since the NFC South was formed in 2002
It's an indication of how unusual the Buccaneers' 2005 schedule is that, even as the season approaches its halfway point, it feels like it's just beginning.
Every game in the NFL is critical, of course, but there is an added intensity to intra-division contests, particularly when the events of recent seasons have built up some enmity between those division foes. The Bucs haven't played a single NFC South game yet, and so that extra juice, as Head Coach Jon Gruden might put it, has been waiting in the wings.
Now the NFC South carousel is going to begin in earnest.
There have been a few early warning shots. The Saints and Panthers played on opening weekend, with New Orleans leaving Carolina with a surprising victory. The Saints also played Atlanta in one of their temporary homes for 2005, San Antonio's Alamo Dome, and lost a thrilling, last-minute decision to the Falcons, 34-31.
But Sunday's game will be the first meeting between the three teams currently tied atop the division: Atlanta, Carolina and Tampa Bay. It will also be the resumption of what has turned into perhaps the Buccaneers most emotionally-charged rivalry. And if all that isn't enough, Sunday's showdown will undoubtedly serve as an indication of just how good these two playoff performers are.
The Bucs have surprised some analysts with their quick start to the season, and failed to convince some others. Some observers cite the depressed records of the Bucs' first seven opponents, an analysis that probably fails to realize how difficult it is to secure any win in today's National Football League. Still, it is undeniable that a strong performance against the loaded Panthers will add credibility to the Bucs' playoff chase, as well as confidence to the players.
Carolina, which has beaten the Bucs four straight times, most of them nail-biters, will not go down easy.
"They're scary good," said Gruden. "They have a great defensive scheme. They're going to blitz – corners, safeties, sometimes corners and safeties on the same play. When they just rush four they have a very good pass rush. Stephen Davis is back. They have a big-play wide receiver here in [Steve] Smith. They're a well-rounded football team and they're clearly hot right now. We're excited to play them and excited to be back at home."
The Panthers' NFL rankings don't seem overwhelming – 16th on offense, 17th on defense – but the 49ers demonstrated last Sunday how little those numbers mean. The Panthers have big-playmakers on both sides of the ball, most notably Smith on offense and defensive end Julius Peppers on defense. They've got a strong, mobile offensive line, a basher of a running back in Davis and a quarterback, Jake Delhomme, who seems to relish late-game heroics against the Buccaneers.
The Panthers are also coming off a 38-13 slaughtering of the Minnesota Vikings and are riding a four-game winning streak into Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs, on the other hand, are returning home after a disappointing loss on the West Coast, with a 1-2 record since their 4-0 start. Carolina would seem to have the upper hand in terms of momentum, but that, too, can be unpredictable in the NFL. The Bucs, who have already put Sunday's loss in San Francisco behind them, believe they can come out as strong as they have all season this weekend.
"I'm confident," said Gruden. "We're going to prepare hard. We're going to go out here and work extremely hard to try and put our best performance together of the year. I really am excited about the guys that are coming to work with the right look in their eyes. We're not going to let one defeat or two defeats or a negative road trip set us back from our goals. We realize this is a work in progress, this football team. We have a long way to go to get it where we want it to be."
Strangely, the Bucs might have been more of a complete team when the season started. Before rookie RB Cadillac Williams suffered a foot injury that has limited him to 33 rushing yards since Week Four, Tampa Bay had a prolific running game off which to pivot the playbook. They also had a veteran quarterback in his second year in the system, efficiently driving the offense.
Now Williams is a bit less of a sure thing, at least according to his recent results. He returned from nearly a month of rest on Sunday to gain just 20 rushing yards against the 49ers, though he rarely had any room in which to run. And that veteran passer, Brian Griese, is on the shelf for the season with a knee injury. The offense is now in the hands of third-year man, Chris Simms. Simms is confident and talented, but he still must prove himself in the Bucs' backfield. Sunday will provide him with the perfect stage on which to do so.
And there you see the emphasis for the Bucs' preparations this week, with the NFC South race just dawning. As potent of foes as the Panthers, Falcons and Saints are, the Bucs are most worried about their own ship. The Bucs won both of their games against Carolina in 2002 en route to the Super Bowl and had victory within their grasp in three of the four meetings over the last two years. They believe they are capable of beating the Panthers still, but know it will take their best efforts.
"We're putting together our football team," said Gruden. "[The 49ers game] was a setback for us. We're not worried about the Falcons or the Panthers, we're worried about our team and how we can get better."