Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Love to Hate

A rather heated rivalry exists between the Buccaneers and the Panthers, but that doesn't erase the respect the two teams have for each other, nor does it make Sunday's game any less enjoyable

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DT Chris Hovan sees some of the Bucs' own approach to the game in how the Panthers play football

Chris Hovan says the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a high level of respect for the Carolina Panthers.

In fact, the Bucs see a bit of themselves in the way the Panthers pursue success: great defense, a strong running game, avoidance of big plays on defense, trying to lead the league in effort. The Buccaneers respect the philosophy with which Carolina approaches the game.

Just don't mistake that respect for affection.

"We respect what they do put on tape, but at one o'clock we don't have to like each other," explained Hovan.

Hovan is one of the Buccaneers' best locker-room speakers, thoughtful, informed and there every day, win or lose. He's also diplomatic, as evidenced above. It's quite clear that the Buccaneers and Panthers have a very heated rivalry, with no love lost on either side. Hovan is good at putting it nicely, but there's no hiding the enmity between these two teams, regardless of their mutual respect.

In fact, Hovan could see that relationship even before he became a Buccaneer, during his days as a Minnesota Viking.

"If you look at it, since this division started it's been Carolina and Tampa fighting for the division," said Hovan. "Even when I was playing up north, I would watch these games, and this has turned into a real rivalry. Over the years, it's developed into what it is today. It's the age-old saying: They don't like us, we don't like them."

Does that matter? Well, it's probably no coincidence that most Bucs-Panthers games come down to the wire. With an occasional exception here and there, these two teams have tended to play contest that are decided late, in part because both teams are operating at top intensity levels.

Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium should be no different. As usual, there is a lot riding on the outcome, as the 4-1 Panthers currently hold a one-game edge in the NFC South over the 3-2 Bucs (as well as the 3-2 Atlanta Falcons).

"It's a pretty good rivalry and there is a lot riding on this game early," said center Jeff Faine. "For us to get out there and defend the [division] championship, this is definitely going to be the first step here and it is going to be a big game this weekend.

Carolina has stunningly won five straight games at Raymond James. The Bucs want to break that streak immediately because it would put them into a big early-season hole to lose this one to their division rivals and drop two games out of first. Unfortunately, the Panthers are coming in on a roll, having just blasted the Kansas City Chiefs, 34-0.

"We obviously have to pick up our intensity based on what they put on film last week," said wide receiver Ike Hilliard. "They're playing great football right now. They're a great defensive team. It's going to be a challenge for us.

"It's almost a must win for us. We've already lost one in the division and we have some ground to make up. We lost a tough game last week, but we have a good football team. Based on that we have to come and play our best football."

And they have to do it against their most heated rival. That may raise the stakes, but it also makes the game that much more entertaining. The respect the Bucs have for the Panthers doesn't erase the dislike between the two teams, and neither does that dislike rob the series of its joy. In fact, it all ads up to one of the most enjoyable Sundays of the year.

"It should be a very, very fun game this week," said defensive end Greg White with a big smile. "Yeah, it should be really fun."

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