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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Spoils of Battle

The Panthers have more at stake in Sunday’s game than the Buccaneers, who have been all but eliminated from the playoff race, but it won’t take the role of spoilers to motivate the home team


DE Greg Spires and the Bucs' pass rush got to Jake Delhomme four times in the last meeting

On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers square off for the second time this season. Forgive us the cliché, but these are two teams that don't particularly like each other.

The Bucs and Panthers may not be friendly, but they do know how to stay close. With the exception of Tampa Bay's 23-10 home win in 2002 – a game that was more tightly contested than the score indicates – every battle between these two division foes has been a nail-biter since the NFC South was formed in 2002.

Throw in the high stakes of the series – the winner in the past two years has won the division and advanced to the Super Bowl – the Panthers, former underdogs, fighting for respect in 2003 and the sizzling debate over whose defense is more powerful, and you've got a rivalry that only grows more heated each meeting.

The team that loses generally goes away with the feeling that it lost an opportunity to win. In the case of this Sunday's game, the potential lost opportunity is even greater; while the Bucs skewered their own playoff hopes with a last-minute loss to the Saints last Sunday, the Panthers moved into temporary possession of the sixth playoff seed despite their own overtime loss. The Bucs could do major damage to Carolina's playoff hopes with a victory on Sunday.

In other words, the Panthers won't get a free pass from their division rivals, though it's unlikely they expect to.

"We have to continue to get battle-ready and win some more battles, so that we can get ourselves in position to go to the playoffs and win the war and win a Super Bowl," said Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Right now, it doesn't look like that is going to be an option for us this year, but we can finish strong and I am counting on our players to do that."

The Bucs could have done a lot to derail Carolina's playoff hopes a month ago, when the teams met sporting 4-6 and 3-7 records, respectively. The Panthers were just at the beginning of what has turned into an impressive run, as they rebounded from 1-7 to reach 6-7 before losing in overtime at Atlanta on Saturday. Even at 6-8, they are tied for the sixth spot in the NFC standings, holding a tiebreaker edge over the St. Louis Rams.

The Panthers could even clinch a playoff spot this weekend, though the chain of events leading to that eventuality is a little far-fetched. Not only would Carolina have to beat the Bucs, but the Rams would have to lose, the Saints would have to lose or tie, the Bears would have to lose or tie, the Seahawks would have to win and – this is the best part – the Dallas-Washington game would have to end in a tie.

Don't hold your breath on that one. Still, the Panthers could stay in the driver's seat by beating the Bucs, with their final game at home coming against the Saints in Week 17.

If that came to pass, the Panthers would be the first NFL team ever to rebound from a 1-7 start to make the playoffs. That would give Carolina a rather improbable shot at defending its NFC title of a year ago. If the Panthers make it, there might not be a player more responsible than defensive end Julius Peppers.

Peppers, the second overall pick in the 2002 draft and a central figure in the Bucs-Panthers rivalry, has played like a man possessed during Carolina's run. Against the Buccaneers, he dropped into coverage and made a stunning interception of a sideline pass, returning it 46 yards for a touchdown. Last Saturday in Atlanta, Peppers snatched a loose ball out of the air with one hand, never breaking stride, and ran for another touchdown. Earlier this year, he ran an interception back 97 yards. He has 10 sacks, two picks and 57 tackles and against the Falcons on Sunday he was pushing around the Atlanta tackles with ease.

"I have seen all of Peppers's films," said Gruden. "He is a fantastic player. He's great. [Mike] Rucker is also playing very, very well. They are blitzing a lot. They are doing a great job applying pressure."

The loquacious defensive tackles who were at the middle of the debate over the relative strengths of the Bucs and Panthers' D-lines won't be involved this time; Warren is now a Raider and Kris Jenkins is on injured reserve. But the argument is still a good one, and difficult to resolve.

As dangerous as Peppers, Rucker and Brentson Buckner are, the Bucs' line, led by Simeon Rice, Greg Spires and Dewayne White, has been even more productive this year. The Bucs have 44 sacks and lead the league in sacks per pass play, with Rice tied for first in the NFC with 12.5 of his own. Buc rushers got to the Saints' Aaron Brooks seven times on Sunday.

That debate might never be settled, but the defensive line that is more productive on Sunday could determine the outcome of this game, which could go a long way towards determining the NFC playoff field. Even if the Bucs aren't likely to be on the invite list, they will play the game as if there as much at stake as ever.

"I think this team has guts; they have grit," said Gruden. "They work their butts off. I am not going to look back. I don't believe in that stuff. I think this team plays hard. They play with all they have."

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