Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won just one of their last eight meetings with the Carolina Panthers since 2003. The Bucs’ 1-7 record vs. the Panthers doesn’t exactly support the notion that this matchup is arguably the biggest one in the NFC South division, but history does show that this heated rivalry goes much deeper than wins and losses.

The Bucs have lost much more than seven games to the Panthers. Former Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica lost his confidence after the Panthers blocked two field goals and an extra point in Tampa Bay’s 12-9 overtime loss to Carolina in Week 2 of the 2003 regular season. Just over one year ago, quarterback Chris Simms lost his spleen in a 26-24 loss to the Panthers.

Needless to say, there is some bad blood between these two NFC South foes.

“It’s heated. I’ll leave it at that,” Bucs defensive tackle Chris Hovan said.

Only two of Tampa Bay’s last seven losses to Carolina have been by double digits. This matchup arguably will be the Bucs’ most physical game of the season, and they began mentally and physically preparing for it at One Buccaneer Place on Wednesday.

“It’s going to be a tough game,” said Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks. “Most of our games against them have gone down the wire. It’s always a dogfight. We’re not expecting anything less from them this time around.”

The Bucs are confident they can play the Panthers tough, but they realize they have little room for error if they hope to escape Carolina with a win on Sunday.

“There’s no question [Carolina is Tampa Bay’s biggest rival],” Bucs tight end Anthony Becht said. “It’s always an emotional-filled game and a playoff atmosphere. Both teams are well coached and ready to go, and the games usually go down to the wire. We haven’t been on top of a lot of the games, but they come down to a few series.”

Tampa Bay’s last win vs. Carolina came in November of the 2005 regular season. The Bucs defeated the Panthers in Bank of America Stadium, 20-10. That win turned out to be huge that season as the 11-5 Bucs won the tiebreaker with the 11-5 Panthers for the NFC South division title.

What proved to be the difference between Tampa Bay’s win in Carolina in 2005 and its seven losses to the Panthers since ’03?

“I think we just played 60 minutes of football,” said Becht. “We finished off the last few drives of the game. We didn’t turn the ball over and we made some great plays on special teams. That’s what it will take to pull off a win there on Sunday.”

The Bucs have surprised people around the league by jumping out to a 2-1 start this season, but they’re not receiving much national attention or recognition due to the fact that both of Tampa Bay’s wins have come against teams that remain winless this season.

Defeating the Panthers in Carolina on Sunday would certainly open some eyes around the league as far as Tampa Bay is concerned, but the Bucs don’t necessarily mind flying under the radar.

“That’s fine,” Hovan said. “Let New England, Indianapolis and all of the upper echelon teams get all of the notoriety and we’ll just sit back and attempt to keep humbly winning games.”

Added Brooks: “We don’t need it. You just continue to win games and all of that stuff will take care of itself.”

Although this rivalry began when the NFC South division was first formed in 2002, a few new players, namely Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia and Panthers quarterback David Carr, will get their first taste of this heated bout on Sunday.

Garcia, 37, was signed by Tampa Bay during the offseason. However, this will not be the first time Garcia faces the Panthers. In fact, he’s won his past three starts vs. Carolina.

Garcia’s last meeting vs. the Panthers came when he was with the Eagles last year. He completed 21-of-39 passes for 312 yards and tossed three touchdown passes en route to the Eagles’ 27-24 win over Carolina.

Although this will be his first time meeting the Panthers as a Buccaneer, Garcia is well aware of history behind this matchup.

"I can appreciate [the Bucs-Panthers rivalry] and see how this can be a very big game, especially early in the season,” Garcia. “I think with both teams coming in at 2-1 looking to take that next step to grab a strong hold on the division. It will be a tough game. I think going back to hearing stories about the past four or five years and things that have happen, I realize how big a game this is for Tampa and the city. We just want to go out and execute well and really concentrate on the things that we’ve really being doing well over the past two weeks and continue to build on those things."

Panthers starting QB Jake Delhomme, who completed 44-of-70 passes (62.8 percent) of his passes for 512 yards and tossed three touchdowns and one interception in two games vs. the Bucs in 2006, did not practice Wednesday. He is listed as day-to-day with a right elbow injury. Carr, a 2002 first-round draft pick with the Houston Texans, likely will start in Delhomme’s place.

Delhomme’s injury appears to be an advantage for Tampa Bay’s defense, which ranks 11th overall in the NFL, but the players aren’t preparing for the players as much as they are prepping for the Panthers’ schemes.

“We never prepare for personnel,” said Brooks. “It doesn’t matter who is at quarterback. Their offense is going to be executed. Our job is to out-execute them.”

The conclusion of Sunday’s game will mark the end of the first quarter of the 2007 regular season. The winner of the Bucs-Panthers game will be in sole possession of first place with a 3-1 record.

That’s because the Atlanta Falcons and the defending NFC South division champions, the New Orleans Saints, are both off to 0-3 starts.

The Bucs can relate all too well to the Saints’ woes. History has not been kind to defending NFC South champs. No team has ever repeated as division champion in the NFC South. The Bucs have experienced the fall from grace twice since 2002.

Last year, Tampa Bay planned to become the first team to repeat in the South. Instead, it finished the season with a 4-12 record and in last place.

Not only has no team ever repeated as NFC South division champs, the team that has won the division each year finished in last place in the previous season.

“I’ve always had this argument about the NFC South that we are the most competitive division because no one has repeated as champions,” said Brooks. “That’s not to say what is ahead for New Orleans, but that’s just history and fact. I can attest to what they’re going through because we went through it.”

That certainly bodes well for the Bucs, who know they can take one step closer to keeping that mysterious trend alive by beating the Panthers on Sunday.

“It seems like there’s a changing of the guard every year,” said Hovan. "That’s great. That certainly falls in our favor this year. We’re starting at 2-1 and we have to capitalize on that this weekend.”

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