There will be a lot at stake when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers clash at Ericsson Stadium on Sunday.

The 8-4 Bucs trail the 9-3 Panthers by one game in the race for first place in the NFC South division. Should the Bucs win, they’ll tie the Panthers for first place with three games left to be played in the 2005 regular season. However, a Bucs loss would essentially give the Panthers a three-game lead over the Bucs and the NFC South division title, which comes with more than just bragging rights.

The winner of the each division is guaranteed a home playoff game, and with that perk riding on Sunday’s game the Bucs are preparing for what should be a playoff-like atmosphere.

“It is a playoff game,” said Bucs linebacker Ryan Nece. “That is what we are fighting for, so in essence, if you do not win these types of games you get knocked out of the playoffs. So in our mind it is a playoff game.”

Tampa Bay has lost five straight games to Carolina dating back to the 2003 regular season. Three of those games were decided by less than one score, but the Bucs’ last two losses to the Panthers were by 17 and 20 points, respectively. While a five-game losing streak suggests the Panthers have the Bucs’ number, Gruden has a much different perspective.

“I don’t remember that. I really don’t,” Gruden said when asked about the Panthers five straight wins vs. the Bucs. “We’re coming off a big win. I don’t give a damn about the five-game [streak]. Twelve [road] games in a row we’d lost to Green Bay. I don’t know if we’d ever won in the Metrodome. We’ve had so many negative losing streaks around here, if I had a dime for all of them I wouldn’t be here today, I promise you that. We’re going to play this game like it’s the first time we’ve ever met and we’ll see what happens.”

No matter how they fare on Sunday, the Bucs, who currently own the first of two Wild Card spots in the NFC playoff standings, must finish the season strong in order to secure a playoff berth for the first time since 2002.

“No, I don’t look at it that way,” Gruden said when asked if it felt like Sunday’s game was for the division title. “I think you’ve got four games left to play and this is a big game in a four-game span. But this is the NFL. You’ve got to play every game, every snap or you will get beat.

“The final quarter of the season is here, and it’s a big game, there’s no question about that.”

While Tampa Bay acknowledges the fact that Carolina is a very talented football team, the Bucs insist that they’ve made too many mistakes to beat the Panthers in recent meetings, including the 34-14 loss earlier this season at Raymond James Stadium.

“We didn’t play very good,” Gruden said of Tampa Bay’s loss to Carolina in Week 9. “I’m not going to talk about them all day. We did not play good. We had five false starts, we dropped five passes. We gave up third-and-10, third-and-9, third-and-8, uncharacteristically. We didn’t play very good. I’ll give them all the credit in the world: they’re a great team, they’re physical, they’ve got talent. But we’ve got to play better than we did four weeks ago. That I do know.”

Gruden’s not the only one that shares that sentiment. The players know that the Bucs can’t afford to make many mistakes and still expect to pull off the upset over the Panthers.

“I think it’s more about us than them,” said Bucs quarterback Chris Simms. “That’s the one thing…even from my days in Texas. I’m sure you’re referring to Oklahoma and things like that. It’s more about us and what we do. We can’t make mistakes, can’t turn the ball over. We shot ourselves in the foot a few times in the first half last game. We were kind of moving the ball [and then] there were a few false starts and things like that. When we get some momentum going we need to keep it going and not ruin it ourselves.”

On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Derrick Brooks said the Panthers didn’t beat the Bucs as soundly as the 34-14 score in Week 9 suggested.

“Early on, personally I think we played better than we thought, in terms of moving the ball,” said Brooks. “Again, take away a couple plays, a couple penalties, a couple turnovers – well, one turnover – and you never know what would have happened. Defensively, we defended them well, we just gave up two big plays, a big run and a big pass. You give them credit, obviously, for their resilience, coming in here on the road and finding a way to win. We’re going to have to show that same resolve, going up to their place.”

Although it’s difficult, defeating the Panthers at Ericsson Stadium can be done. The Saints, whom the Bucs handed a 10-3 loss to last Sunday, escaped Carolina in Week 1 with a 23-20 win over the Panthers, who have won eight of their last nine games.

One of the reasons why Tampa Bay feels it has a legitimate shot to compete with Carolina is because of the progress Simms has made since these two teams’ last meeting. Simms was making just his second start of the season when the Panthers came to town in Week 9. As a result, the third-year quarterback tossed an interception to Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble that was returned 60 yards for a touchdown. He was also sacked five times.

Gruden said Simms, who has helped lead Tampa Bay to three wins in its past four games, has come a long way since that game vs. Carolina, and he realizes his entire team will have to improve upon their Week 9 performance vs. the Panthers in order to pull off the upset on Sunday.

“He’s better. He’s a better player,” said Gruden. “Overall, in every area, he’s better. He’s more calm. He’s just better. He’s got better feel for the speed of the game, he’s seeing more, he’s showing tremendous poise and he’s made some unbelievable throws. I’m really excited about what he’s done. He’s getting better in every area that you can get better in as a quarterback. That’s a positive. He’s got a long way to go to truly max out and showcase what he can be. I think for him to do that he’s got to get more playing time and our supporting cast and our play-calling has to get better, too.”

Bryant Kicks, Still Questionable
Matt Bryant kicked Wednesday for the first time in more than a week.

While it looks like he took a step in the right direction, Bryant (hamstring) is still listed as questionable on Tampa Bay’s injury report.

“Matt Bryant kicked a little bit today,” said Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. “He’s still questionable. Hopefully he kicks a little bit more tomorrow. He’s getting better, but how much better we’ll find out here in the coming days.”

Should Bryant be unable to play vs. the Carolina Panthers, K Todd France would start for the second consecutive game.

In other injury news, Bucs safety Will Allen (knee) and linebacker Marquis Cooper (chest) were both upgraded to probable after missing the contest vs. the New Orleans Saints.

While the injury news appears to be encouraging for the Bucs, the same can’t be said for the Panthers, who have a total of eight players on their injury report. Seven of the Carolina players are listed as questionable for Sunday’s game vs. Tampa Bay.

Panthers S Idrees Bashir (hamstring), tight end Michael Gaines (ankle), wide receiver Karl Hankton (forearm), linebacker Dan Morgan (ankle), offensive lineman Tutan Reyes (knee) and defensive ends Mike Rucker (ankle) and Julius Peppers (ankle) are questionable for the game. Fullback Brad Hoover (ankle) is probable.

Bucs Sign TE Farmer To Practice Squad
Tampa Bay signed former Minnesota tight end Steven Farmer to its eight-man practice squad on Wednesday.

Farmer, who entered the NFL in 2003 as an undrafted free agent with Vikings, spent all of his rookie season on injured reserve. He was released by Minnesota this summer.

The Bucs had a vacancy on their practice squad after promoting France to their active roster on Saturday.

Quote of the Day
CB Brian Kelly on the Bucs-Panthers being a heated rivalry

“I think it’s a mutual disrespect. They don’t care much for us, we don’t care much for them. But in the end, they know we’re a good football team and we know they’re a good football team. We enjoy playing each other. They were able to come into our home and get a win and we’ve got to go out there and do the same.”

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