Over the last five games between Tampa Bay and Carolina, Steve Smith has scored touchdowns and performed end zone dances, Julius Peppers has been plastered all over Buccaneers quarterbacks, Ricky Proehl has made a big play that has been the dagger in the Bucs' heart, Jake Delhomme has displayed fourth quarter heroics, Tampa Bay kickers have either had their kicks blocked or have missed them altogether, and the Panthers defense has capitalized on several Tampa Bay turnovers.
Yet none of those usually common occurrences happened today - except for a meaningless Proehl touchdown in garbage time.
No, this wasn't your typical Bucs-Panthers game, especially the outcome, with 9-4 Tampa Bay taking on the role of dominators by winning at Carolina, 20-10, and claiming the current lead in the NFC South due to a better division record than the Panthers, who are also 9-4 after their humbling defeat.
So what happened this year to halt the Panthers' five-game winning streak over the Bucs that dated back to the 2003 season?
Start with the fact that the Buccaneers' clutch kicker, Matt Bryant, returned from a hamstring strain and was a perfect, 2-for-2 on his field goal attempts from 34 and 36 yards out that helped the Bucs build a 10-0 lead at halftime, and a 13-0 lead in the third quarter. Bryant is now 17-of-20 (85 percent) on field goal attempts in 2005.
Perhaps an even bigger factor in the win was the fact that Tampa Bay finally surpassed the 100-yard rushing barrier against the stalwart Carolina defense, thanks to 112 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries from rookie rusher Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. That marked the first time that the Bucs had rushed for 100 yards in a game against Carolina in the last seven games. A game like today's contest at Carolina is one of the big reasons why the Bucs spent the fifth overall draft pick on Williams, whose violent running style gave the Panthers defense fits all day.
As good as Williams was, the play of Tampa Bay's offensive line, which has had its share of struggles against Carolina, might have been better. Kindal Moorehead notched the only Panthers sack of Chris Simms, who was an efficient 20-of-27 for 138 yards on Sunday. If not for five dropped passes by his receivers, Simms' day would have been even better because of the play of his blockers keeping Carolina defenders off him.
Wide receivers Ike Hilliard (five catches for 32 yards) and Joey Galloway (four catches for 39 yards) led the way for Tampa Bay through the air.
Bucs head coach and play-caller Jon Gruden continued to utilize maximum protection schemes and called safe, low-risk plays designed on moving the chains and avoiding turnovers. The Bucs converted 10-of-17 (59 percent) third downs while their defense held the Panthers to just 2-of-11 (18 percent) on third downs, and, in a rarity, Tampa Bay edged Carolina 1-0 in the turnover battle.
That turnover came when cornerback Ronde Barber stepped in front of Proehl at the Bucs' 7-yard line, picked off Delhomme's pass and returned it to the Tampa Bay 42 to thwart a potential Carolina scoring opportunity while the Bucs led 13-3 with 11:47 in the fourth quarter. That turnover led to Williams' second rushing touchdown, which came 10 plays later.
But Barber wasn't done with Delhomme. On the Panthers' next possession, he would set an NFL record with his 20th career sack when he blitzed from the left side of the line and dropped Delhomme for a 13-yard loss. Barber becomes the first cornerback in NFL history to have at least 20 interceptions and 20 sacks in a career. Including his one from earlier in the fourth quarter, Barber currently has 28 interceptions, which ranks fourth in franchise annals.
Aside from a shaky first drive, Tampa Bay's defense was dominant in holding Carolina to just 82 yards rushing, 0-for-2 in fourth down situations and without a touchdown until the final 23 seconds of the game.
For the first time in recent memory, the Buccaneers were the more physical team on both sides of the ball and beat the Panthers up the way they have been beaten up since 2003, which is when Tampa Bay's infamous, five-game losing streak to Carolina began.
The Panthers quickly moved the ball down the field on its opening possession. Delhomme found Smith for a 23-yard gain after Barber took a bad angle and missed the tackle. Foster took over on the next four plays, ripping off rushes of 8, 15, 5 and 2 yards before the Panthers' drive stalled at the Bucs' 25-yard line. Despite the great start by Carolina, the Panthers had to settle for a 42-yard field goal attempt by John Kasay, but his kick sailed wide left, which deflated the home team while boosting the Bucs' spirits.
The Buccaneers got on the scoreboard first on Tampa Bay's second possession. Tampa Bay's offense got great starting field position at its 47 after an excellent punt by Josh Bidwell was drilled down to the Carolina 2, and a three-and-out was executed by the defense. On third-and-10 from the Carolina 45-yard line, Simms hit Galloway on a 17-yard gain down to the Panthers' 28. Simms would connect with Galloway again on another third down, with the speedy receiver gaining 11 yards down to the 14-yard line. On the next play, Williams raced off left tackle for a 14-yard touchdown, breaking the tackles of linebacker Will Witherspoon and safety Mike Minter. With 4:04 left in the first quarter, Tampa Bay led 7-0 after its initial drive covered 54 yards.
Tampa Bay would add to its lead just before halftime thanks to a 34-yard Bryant field goal that capped off a 12-play, 44-yard drive. Simms hit Hilliard with a 7-yard gain on third-and-6, and found wide receiver Michael Clayton with a 12-yard pick up on third-and-8 down to the Carolina 26. Bryant's kick came as time expired in the first half and gave the Bucs a surprising, 10-0 lead.
The Bucs extended their lead in the third quarter after receiving the ball on their own 39-yard line, which happened to be Tampa Bay's average starting field position for the day, after nose tackle Chris Hovan stopped Panthers running back Stephen Davis for no gain on fourth-and-2. After Simms hit Hilliard for a 12-yard gain on third-and-11, and Mike Alstott with an 8-yard pass on first down, Williams drove the ball deep into Carolina territory with consecutive runs of 3, 9, 2, 5 and 4 yards. After Alstott failed to pick up a first down on third-and-1 at the Panthers' 19, Bryant trotted out for his 36-yard field goal to push the score to 13-0 with 4:32 left in the third quarter.
Carolina would finally dent the scoreboard, thanks to a 60-yard pass from Delhomme to Smith, who eluded safety Dexter Jackson and raced down the right sidelines before being pushed out by strong safety Jermaine Phillips, who saved a touchdown on the play. But the next four plays actually lost a total of two yards and Kasay was called on to nail a 39-yard field goal on fourth-and-12. With 1:23 left in the third quarter, Tampa Bay still led, 13-3.
After Barber's interception gave Tampa Bay the ball back at its own 42, Williams ripped off consecutive runs of 6, 3, 2, 16 and 7 yards before taking a much-needed breather. On third-and-2, Simms used a play-action fake to find Alstott wide open for a 12-yard gain down to the Carolina 11. Three plays later on third-and-9 from the Panthers' 10, Williams raced off left tackle and scored his fifth touchdown of the season to give Tampa Bay a commanding, 20-3 lead.
Proehl's 10-yard touchdown catch with 23 seconds left capped off a nine-play, 51-yard Panthers drive that made the final score 20-10.
Sunday's win was Tampa Bay's ninth of the year, which means that the Bucs are guaranteed to have a winning record for the first time since their Super Bowl season in 2002 in which the team had a franchise-record 12-4 regular season mark. Tampa Bay had a 7-9 record in 2003 and a 5-11 mark in 2004.
The Buccaneers (9-4) end their three-game road trek when they travel to New England to face the Super Bowl champion Patriots (8-5) next Saturday for a nationally televised match-up on Fox. Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m. ET.
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