WR Keyshawn Johnson had one of two touchdowns during a dramatic fourth quarter comeback, but the Panthers had the final word
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' hopes of defending their NFC South title took a serious blow in Charlotte Sunday with a 27-24 loss to the Carolina Panthers. At 4-5, the Bucs' odds of defending their Super Bowl crown are also getting longer.
That the Panthers, first place in the South at 7-2, would defeat the Buccaneers no longer qualifies as a surprise. That they would do it primarily through the air, however, was a bit of a shocker. And that the Bucs would once again stage a dramatic fourth-quarter rally only to lose on a final, answering blow was just downright painful.
Last week, the Bucs drove for two long touchdowns in the fourth quarter against New Orleans only to see Aaron Brooks and the Saints answer with a game-winning field goal drive. This time, Tampa Bay again staged two final-period touchdowns, plus a field goal, simply setting the stage for Jake Delhomme to march the Panthers 78 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
The Bucs are 0-2 this season against Carolina, making their three-game deficit more like a four-game hole, thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker. In the first Bucs-Panthers meeting, Tampa Bay rallied to tie the game at 9-9 on a last-second touchdown catch by WR Keenan McCardell, only to see the potential game-winning extra point blocked.
McCardell caught the go-ahead touchdown in Carolina, as well, on an astounding, one-handed grab of a 36-yard pass at the goal-line, diving between two Buc defenders. CB Tim Wansley grabbed his second interception of the game two plays later and the Bucs tacked on what appeared to be an insurance field goal.
However, Delhomme completed consecutive passes of 29 yards to Ricky Proehl and 22 yards to Muhsin Muhammad to drive the Panthers right down the field. On the completion to Proehl, blitzing CB Ronde Barber forced Delhomme to throw blindly while falling backward, but it fell right into Muhammad's hands at the five. On the next play, Delhomme hit WR Steve Smith on a quick slant for the winning score.
Tampa Bay had one minute left to attempt to tie or win the game, but stalled at its own 44. Kenyatta Walker's third personal foul of the game hurt the drive and a fourth-down pass to McCardell was ruled incomplete on what could have been a first down over midfield.
Playing without RB Stephen Davis, the NFC's leading rusher, Carolina put it in Delhomme's hands and the first-year starter delivered, as he has several times this season. Delhomme completed 20 of 32 passes for 277 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The big blow before the wild fourth quarter was a 66-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Proehl in the third quarter, on a third-down play that appeared to be a coverage mix-up in the Tampa Bay secondary. Proehl is a long-time Buc nemesis, having scored the game-winning touchdown for St. Louis against Tampa Bay in the 1999 NFC Championship Game.
The loss will once again obscure an impressive performance by QB Brad Johnson and his receivers under pressure. Johnson completed 24 of 43 passes for 275 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Of those 275 yards, 157 came in the final period.
Nine of B. Johnson's completions went to McCardell, who gained 118 yards. K. Johnson caught five passes for 80 yards.
Even before Sunday's game in Charlotte, Johnson was the NFL's highest-ranked passer in the fourth quarter. Before McCardell's acrobatic touchdown, his seventh of the season, Johnson directed a five-play, 63-yard drive that cut Carolina's lead to 24-20. The drive's big gains were 21 and 23-yarders to WR Keyshawn Johnson, the second for K. Johnson's third touchdown of the season.
It was still a historic day in one sense for the Buccaneers' defense, which finished its long pursuit of an impressive NFL record. When DE Simeon Rice took down QB Jake Delhomme for a nine-yard loss in the fourth quarter, it marked the 69th consecutive game in which the Tampa Bay defense has recorded at least one sack. Rice also got to Delhomme on the next play, finishing off a very important three-and-out and giving Rice 11 sacks on the season.
The previous record in that category was 68 games, set by the Dallas Cowboys from 1976-80, That fierce Cowboy rush was led by such memorable NFL stars as Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Randy White and Harvey Martin. It's likely that Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and this Bucs' defense will have the same sort of lasting impact on the collective NFL consciousness.
Rice's sacks, his 10th and 11th of the season, forced the three-and-out that set up the Bucs' go-ahead touchdown. Rice finished with four tackles and a forced fumble to go with his takedowns of Delhomme. CB Tim Wansley led Tampa Bay with nine tackles; his first interception of the game was returned 23 yards for the Bucs' first score, cutting Carolina's lead to 10-7 at halftime.
The first half didn't follow the expected form. Both offenses were able to move the ball to some extent, with Carolina surprisingly passing on 20 of their 35 plays. That was in part a reaction to Davis' inactive status due to an ankle sprain, but the Panthers had a fine backup in second-year man DeShaun Foster.
Unlike the power-running Davis, Foster bounced most of his runs to the outside, generally a less effective strategy against the Bucs' swift defenders. At halftime, Foster had just 24 yards on 11 carries, and 14 of Carolina's 41 rushing yards came on a receiver end-around.
QB Jake Delhomme was sharp, however, completing 12 of 18 passes for 118 yards by halftime. On several occasions, Delhomme escaped a collapsing pocket to buy time, finding WR Steve Smith for 17 yards on one play and WR Ricky Proehl for 38 yards on another.
However, both touchdowns in the first half were scored by the defense. Carolina got on the board in a hurry, with S Mike Minter intercepting Brad Johnson's fourth pass and returning it 29 yards for a touchdown. The pass was intended for WR Karl Williams, but Williams fell down while making his cut and the pass sailed on into harm's way.
Tampa Bay's defense responded in the second quarter on Wansley's first career touchdown on a pass thrown over Muhammad's head. In between, the Panthers got a 47-yard John Kasay field goal at the end of a 39-yard drive.
Despite their offensive struggles, the Bucs were just three points down when the second half began. Unfortunately, Carolina tacked on 10 more points on their first two possessions. A 42-yard drive to start the third quarter chewed 6:30 off the clock and netted three points on a 45-yard Kasay field goal. After the Bucs were forced to punt, the Panthers went 77 yards on four plays, most of it on a 66-yard touchdown pass to Proehl. The play appeared to be a mix-up in coverage by the Buccaneers, who let Proehl get behind the secondary by at least 15 yards.
Overall, Tampa Bay's fifth-ranked offense rang up 347 yards to the Panthers' 341. Like the first game between these two teams, however, the game was marred by penalties, nine against Tampa Bay and seven against Carolina. A holding call on the Panthers erased a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by RB Rod Smart.
The Bucs are at 4-5 after nine games for the first time in the last three years. In 2001, Tampa Bay rallied to win five of their last seven and earn a Wild Card berth.
Notes: In addition to setting the consecutive-game sack record (see above), the Bucs also pushed their streak of consecutive games with at least one takeaway to 50 when CB Tim Wansley intercepted a second-quarter Jake Delhomme pass and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown. That streak is the longest current one and the second longest in the NFL since 1983; the longest is Philadelphia's 71 from 1985-90. … The Bucs have been extremely hard on Carolina on third downs this season. In the two team's first meeting, a 12-9 Panther win in Tampa in Week Two, Carolina was able to convert just four of 17 third down tries. On Sunday in the rematch, the Panthers were five of 13. That's a two-game total of eight of 30, or 26.7% … The Bucs tried a few new options in the return game on Sunday. RBs Thomas Jones and Aaron Stecker traded places on kickoffs, with Jones lining up deeper and getting the primary return responsibilities. He returned five kicks for 76 yards. Reggie Barlow also was given a few looks at punt return, recording one return for no yards.
Injury Updates: The Bucs reported no significant injuries during the game.
Quarter Reports: During Sunday's game, Buccaneers.com provided game updates at the end of each quarter. Those updates follow to offer a closer look at the game's key plays.
First Quarter Update
The first quarter was all Carolina. Thanks to a defensive touchdown and a field goal on a short but impressive drive, the home team took a 10-0 lead into the second period. Carolina, which had 99 yards in the first period to the Bucs' 55, also had the ball at Tampa Bay's 39 when the quarter came to an end.
The Buccaneers won the toss and elected to receive. RB Thomas Jones got the return over midfield but a penalty erased almost all of it and put the Bucs at their own 16.
Tampa Bay came out determined to run, giving it to RB Michael Pittman on first and second down. Pittman got four yards on each carry, but a third-and-two pass by QB Brad Johnson was hurried and well short of intended receiver Keenan McCardell. Tom Tupa's fourth-down punt went out of bounds at Carolina's 39.
The Panthers also tried to run on first down, giving it to RB DeShaun Foster on a sweep left, but C Jeff Mitchell was flagged for holding. On first-and-20, LB Derrick Brooks nearly intercepted a pass intended for WR Muhsin Muhammad. Foster got four yards up the middle on second down, but WR Steve Smith's catch on the right sideline came up seven yards short on third down. WR Karl Williams fair caught Todd Sauerbrun's punt at the Bucs' 16.
A first-down pass to Pittman netted five yards on first down, but a second-down swing pass to Jones one-hopped to the back for an incompletion. On third-and-five, disaster struck. Johnson tried to hit Williams on a short pass, but the receiver fell down as the ball was on the way, and the pass continued on to S Mike Minter at the Bucs' 29. Minter dove to intercept it, then got up and returned it to the opposite end zone for the game's first score.
On the ensuing kickoff, FB Darian Barnes surprisingly called for a fair catch at the Bucs' 20. On first down, however, RB Aaron Stecker took a quick-hit handoff up the middle for a gain of 15 yards. Pittman made a nice cut near the line of scrimmage on the next play, slicing off right guard for a gain of seven. A shallow out to McCardell gave the Bucs a first down, but a personal-foul call on T Kenyatta Walker subsequently cost the Bucs 15 yards back to their own 33.
A short one over the middle to McCardell got five yards, and Pittman went up the middle for three yards. On third-and-two, Johnson tried to scramble for the first down but was stopped just short of the sticks. A very short punt gave the ball back to Carolina at their 31.
LB Dwayne Rudd's first-down blitz forced QB Jake Delhomme to scramble, and S John Lynch knocked away Delhomme's pass to TE Jermaine Wiggins. However, Foster bounced his second-down carry around the outside and got 13 yards to the Panthers' 44. WR Steve Smith avoided CB Ronde Barber's tackle at the line of scrimmage on the next play and picked up nine yards into Buc territory. However, Barber then caught Foster in the backfield on second down for a loss of three yards. On third-and-four, Delhomme side-stepped a near sack by DT Warren Sapp, buying him time to find Smith wide open the middle of the field. The result was a 17-yard gain down to the Bucs' 33.
A quick pass to Muhammad on the right was incomplete, but Smith's catch-and-run worked again, for 14 yards down to the Bucs' 19. DE Simeon Rice stopped Foster's attempted sweep left for no gain on first down, and an illegal-use-of-hands penalty cost Carolina 10 yards. Smith dropped a short pass on second-and-20, and a handoff to Spires lost a yard thanks to DE Greg Spires' stop. The Panthers came on to try a 47-yard field goal and John Kasay just snuck it over the crossbar for three points.
The Bucs' offense started again at its own 28, but got an incompletion on first down when Johnson threw the ball away under pressure. Pittman's hard run on second down netted five yards, but a quick slant to WR Keyshawn Johnson was dropped, forcing another Buc punt. Tupa's 43-yarder went out of bounds at the Panthers' 24.
Foster tried to spin back to the other side on his first-down carry but was eventually dropped for a loss of one yard by Rudd. A screen pass to Foster was off target, putting Carolina in a third-and-11 hole. However, Delhomme got them out of it on the last play of the quarter, scrambling out of pressure and finding WR Ricky Proehl all alone deep down the left sideline for a gain of 38.
Second Quarter Update
Tampa Bay clawed back into the game in the second quarter, mostly due to a big defensive play. Matching Carolina's defensive score from the first period, the Bucs' defense also scored, cutting the home team's lead to three points. At halftime, Carolina held a 159-128 edge in total yardage but the turnovers were even at one apiece.
Carolina opened the second quarter with a 10-point lead and a first down at the Bucs' 39. A short pass to WR Muhsin Muhammad was good for six yards when Muhammad avoided CB Tim Wansley's tackle. RB DeShaun Foster then took a sweep around the right end for six more yards and a first down at the Bucs' 23.
A safety blitz helped force QB Jake Delhomme into a throwaway on first down, and RB Rod Smart fumbled and recovered at his own 33 for a loss of six. More pressure on Delhomme on third down prompted him into an underneath toss to Foster, and LB Derrick Brooks tackled him for a loss of two. The Panthers lined up as if to try a 53-yard field goal, but John Kasay instead pooched a punt that Carolina was able to down at the Bucs' two.
From that tough spot, RB Michael Pittman tried left guard but was stopped for no gain. A play-action pass to FB Jameel Cook was good for six yards, and WR Keyshawn Johnson made a tough catch for nine yards on third down despite a hard hit from CB Ricky Manning, Jr.
With a first down at their own 17, the Bucs got nine more on a pass to WR Keenan McCardell in the right flat, and an encroachment penalty on Carolina moved the sticks. From their own 30, the Bucs tried a rollout pass to Pittman but the pass was low and he couldn't haul it in. Pittman got three yards on a second-down run up the middle, and a post pattern to K. Johnson was good for 18 to the Panthers' 48.
Unfortunately, a personal-foul facemask on T Kenyatta Walker made it first-and-25, and QB Brad Johnson's first-down pass was thrown away under heavy pressure. A delayed handoff to RB Thomas Jones picked up 10 yards, but Johnson's third-down throw was too low for McCardell to pick off the ground. Tom Tupa's punt was nearly blocked, but he got it off. Good coverage and a penalty on Carolina forced the Panthers to start at their own four.
Foster bounced another run outside, to the left, but CB Tim Wansley pushed him out of bounds at the six. Wansley also made the play on the next snap, and it was even bigger. Delhomme tried to hit Muhammad on the right, but the pass was overthrown and Wansley made a leaping pick at the Bucs' 23. He then picked up blockers and made it all the way back to the end zone for a touchdown.
The Panthers' Rod Smart appeared to answer immediately with a 94-yard touchdown return on the kickoff, but the play was erased by a holding penalty. Carolina started instead at their own 28, but they did pick up 14 yards on an end-around to WR Steve Smith. Foster got one yard on his next carry, stopped quickly by DT Anthony McFarland, and three more on second down, again halted by McFarland. On third-and-six, Delhomme was forced into a quick incompletion by a collapsing pocket.
After the ensuing punt, the Bucs started at their own 19 with 3:43 to play. A play-action pass to Cook picked up four yards and Johnson found McCardell open over the middle on second down for 11 more. On first down from the 34, Pittman ran up the middle for three yards and the Bucs let the clock run down to the two-minute warning.
After the break, Johnson tried to go deep to McCardell on the right side but the receiver was well-covered and the pass was too deep for either side to get to. A pump-and-go to Williams on the same side almost worked but was slightly overthrown. Tupa's short punt took a nice Buc bounce but Smith was able to get it back to the Carolina 20 with 1:36 left in the half.
Two short passes down the line of scrimmage to Smith netted Carolina a total of 11 yards and a first down at the 31 with 1:24 to play. An underneath handoff to RB Nick Goings gained just two yards. Tampa Bay thinking Carolina had chosen to run out the clock, called a timeout at the 1:16 mark. Muhammad ran a stop route on the right side and got seven yards, with a good tackle by Wansley preventing the first down. The Panthers rushed quickly to the line and ran a QB sneak and it worked, gaining a first down at the 41.
An underneath pass to Smith got just three but the receiver got out of bounds at the 43-second mark. Delhomme scrambled right and threw a six-yard pass to TE Mike Seidman on second down, making it third-and-one at midfield. The Panthers tried to convert with a sweep right by Foster but DE Greg Spires fought through a block to drop him for no gain. Both teams then let the first-half clock run out.
Third Quarter Update
The third quarter was as damaging as the first for Tampa Bay, as Carolina scored both times it had the ball and pushed its lead to 20-7. A long pass play helped the Panthers to rack up 114 yards in the quarter, giving them 273 through three. The Bucs' offense had accounted for 185 yards by the same juncture.
The Panthers got the ball first in the second half and started at their own 31.
On first down, RB DeShaun Foster got around the right corner and picked up eight yards. DE Greg Spires allowed Foster only one yard off right guard on second down, and a Jake Delhomme QB sneak moved the sticks.
From the Panthers' 42, Delhomme tried a play-action pass but was flushed out of the pocket. S John Lynch's coverage on the left sideline kept Delhomme from getting a pass in to TE Jermaine Wiggins. However, Delhomme looked off the coverage and threw underneath to WR Muhsin Muhammad on second down for a gain of 11 and a first down at the Bucs' 47.
Foster's next two runs got little, but LB Dwayne Rudd was flagged for a facemask penalty after the second one and the result was a first down at the Bucs' 31. Delhomme scrambled left on first down, picking up three yards, and a holding penalty on second down erased most of a good run around left end by Foster. On second down, RB Rod Smart got just one yard up the middle, and a quick pass out to WR Steve Smith picked up just four yards. Panther K John Kasay came on and easily nailed a 45-yard field goal, giving Carolina a 13-7 lead.
A short return and a penalty on the kickoff pushed the Bucs back to their own nine to start their next drive. Tampa Bay got out of that hole in a hurry, however. RB Michael Pittman ran for 12 yards up the middle on first down, then caught a five-yard pass on second down. After that second play, the Panthers were flagged for roughing the passer and the result was a first down at Tampa Bay's 41.
Thomas Jones got the next carry, pushing up the middle for two yards. The Bucs went deep on second down, with QB Brad Johnson throwing down the middle to WR Keyshawn Johnson. Johnson almost made a leaping, falling catch, but it was ruled incomplete, which was held up under an instant-replay challenge. B. Johnson had to throw the ball away on third down and the Bucs were forced to punt.
Carolina's next drive began at their own 23. Foster ran yet another sweep, this one to the left, and it worked for a gain of 10 yards. Foster tried the same play twice more and got just one yard, but the Panthers scored on the next play. WR Ricky Proehl got well behind the Bucs' secondary on what looked like a coverage mix-up and Delhomme easily hit him for a 66-yard touchdown pass.
Starting from his own 22, Johnson faked a handoff to Pittman then hit the back over the middle for a gain of seven. A second down pass to WR Keenan McCardell was complete for 12 yards on the left side, but TE Todd Yoder false started to give back five yards. On first-and-15 from the 36, a delayed handoff didn't fool DT Kris Jenkins, who dropped Aaron Stecker in the backfield for a loss of two. However, Johnson converted the second-and-17 situation with a perfect corner-route toss to McCardell on the right sideline.
That 21-yard gain put the Bucs five yards into Carolina territory, and Pittman got one yard on a carry up the middle. After an incompletion over the middle, the Bucs were flagged for holding, making it third-and-19. Johnson briefly escaped pressure on the next play but was eventually sacked for a loss of one. That play brought on the end of the third quarter.
Fourth Quarter Update
For the second straight week, the fourth quarter featured a thrilling comeback by the Buccaneers followed by a game-winning score by the opposition. This time, two touchdown drives and a field goal gave Tampa Bay a 24-20 lead, which Carolina turned into a 27-24 victory on a 78-yard touchdown march. The Bucs drop to 4-5 with the loss, three games behind the first-place Carolina Panthers.
The fourth quarter began with a Buccaneer punt. Carolina's offense started up at its own 27 and got three yards on a DeShaun Foster run off left guard. LB Dwayne Rudd kept Foster's toss-sweep left from getting more than two yards, setting up third-and-five. The Panthers tried to fool the Bucs with an end-around on third down, but WR Muhsin Muhammad had to fight just to get back to the line of scrimmage.
Todd Sauerbrun's punt went out of bounds at the Bucs' 37. From there, QB Brad Johnson threw a 21-yard sideline pass to WR Keyshawn Johnson. After a pass to RB Michael Pittman was tipped away at the line by Shane Burton, Johnson hit WR Keenan McCardell cutting across the middle for a gain of six. On third-and-four, Johnson scrambled up the middle, weaving through the defense for 13 yards down to Carolina's 23. On the very next play, a deep out to K. Johnson resulted in a 23-yard touchdown pass on a perfectly-thrown ball.
The Bucs' defense responded with a strong push. A Foster run off right tackle gained nothing on first down, and DE Simeon Rice sacked QB Jake Delhomme for a loss of nine on second down. After a Carolina timeout, Rice got Delhomme again, sacking him for a five-yard loss and forcing a punt.
Todd Sauerbrun nailed a booming, 54-yard punt that Karl Williams returned five yards to the Bucs' 35. Johnson and Johnson hooked up again for a nine-yard gain, but two runs by Thomas Jones picked up nothing. The Bucs chose to go for it on fourth-and-one from their own 44 and even got a little tricky with it. Lining up in a jumbo package with DT Warren Sapp on the line, Johnson faked a handoff and rolled left. Though Johnson could have run for the first down, he instead threw to a wide-open Sapp. The throw was a bit off-target but Sapp made an impressive, falling catch for a gain of 18 to the Carolina 38.
After a pass to McCardell picked up 12 yards, Johnson was sacked by DT Kris Jenkins for a loss of 10. A pass to the end zone to McCardell was well-covered and the Bucs burned a precious timeout before their third-and-20 play. It was apparently well-used. McCardell ran a down-out-and-up on the right sideline and made one of the most remarkable catches in recent memory, a diving, one-armed grab between defenders Reggie Howard and Mike Minter. The Bucs took a 21-20 lead on Martin Gramatica's extra point.
Pressure on Delhomme forced a quick throw to FB Brad Hoover that was too low to corral. On second down, Delhomme scrambled under pressure again and threw a wild pass that CB Tim Wansley easily intercepted at the Carolina 39. Wansley returned the ball to the 24 with about four-and-a-half minutes remaining.
Pittman got the carry on first down and blazed up the middle for a gain of 10. His second-down carry was easily swarmed over for a loss of two yards. The Panthers then called a timeout with 3:30 remaining. Johnson deftly avoided a sack on second down and got a pass off to FB Jameel Cook, but for just two yards. Under pressure and not wanting to turn the ball over on third down, Johnson fell to the ground and took a __-yard sack. That allowed Gramatica to try a 39-yard field goal, which he put through the uprights, extending the Bucs' lead to 24-20.
Carolina got the ball back at their own 22 with 2:36 remaining. Delhomme got a pass off over the middle to TE Kris Mangum for 10 yards, but his second pass was incomplete under pressure. The second-down play, another laser over the middle to WR Karl Hankton, got Carolina out to the 44 and brought on the two-minute warning.
After the break, WR Ricky Proehl got wide open down the right seam and Delhomme hit him for a gain of 29. On the next snap, CB Ronde Barber's blitz forced Delhomme to heave the ball up off his back foot, but it was hauled in by Muhammad at the Bucs' five. A quick pass to WR Steve Smith on the next play put Carolina back on top, 27-24.
Tampa Bay's last-chance drive started at its own 22 with 1:01 remaining. A personal foul on Kenyatta Walker made it first-and-21 from the 11, but Johnson hit RB Michael Pittman over the middle for a gain of 26. Another short pass to Pittman stopped the clock at 29 seconds with the ball on Tampa Bay's 41.
The pocket collapsed on Johnson on second down and his pass floated into the air after being hit by LB Will Witherspoon. The same thing happened on third down, but both falls fell to the ground harmlessly. That left the Bucs with 16 seconds to play, facing a fourth-and-six. McCardell nearly converted with a catch on the sideline but he was ruled to have dropped it before gaining possession. The Panthers kneeled once to end the game.