TAMPA – The Buccaneers had a chance to post double-digit wins and become the first team in the NFC South to have a perfect 6-0 record in the division with a win over the visiting Carolina Panthers. A 31-23 loss prevented those feats from happening, but the 9-7 Bucs’ overall goal of resting some key, banged-up starters for next weekend’s Wild Card playoff game at Raymond James Stadium against the New York Giants (10-6) was accomplished.

Tampa Bay’s inactive list for the Carolina game included seven starters in quarterback Jeff Garcia, running back Earnest Graham, fullback B.J. Askew, wide receivers Ike Hilliard and Joey Galloway, middle linebacker Barrett Ruud and strong safety Jermaine Phillips.

Still, because of the loss, a strong case could be made for this Buccaneers team not having much momentum heading into the playoffs losing three out of the last four games, including its last two.

Areas of concern for Tampa Bay’s offense include settling for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Red zone scoring has been a problem all season for the Bucs offense and continued on Sunday with the Bucs kicking two field goals from inside the Panthers’ 20. Tampa Bay is also struggling to run the ball. If not for 47 yards on five carries by quarterback Luke McCown against Carolina, the Bucs would failed to rush for 100 yards in any of their last three out of their last four games.

In its last three losses, the Tampa Bay defense has surrendered too many third down conversions (50 percent versus Carolina), has allowed eight red zone touchdowns and seen no-name, backup quarterbacks such as Houston’s Sage Rosenfels, San Francisco’s Shaun Hill and Carolina’s Matt Moore combine for eight touchdown passes. Against the Bucs, Moore was 15-of-24 for 174 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, but it was second-year running back DeAngelo Williams who did the most damage versus the Buccaneers, rushing for 121 yards on 20 carries (6.1 avg.) with 78 of those yards coming in the fourth quarter – capped off by a 32-yard touchdown run that proved to be the clincher for Carolina.

McCown, who was 21-of-28 for 236 yards with two touchdown passes in relief of Garcia, was sacked four times and picked off once by the Panthers. McCown played well and kept the Bucs in the contest the entire game, but he had two gaffes – an overthrown pass to a wide-open Michael Pittman down the left sidelines at the start of the fourth quarter and his INT at the Carolina 7-yard line with 4:48 left in the game were costly plays, according to head coach Jon Gruden.

After the Bucs’ rally fell short on fourth-and-7 at the Tampa Bay 46, Carolina quarterback Vinny Testaverde, Tampa Bay’s first-round draft pick in 1987, entered the game for the final kneel down play. After the game, Testaverde retired after 21 years in the NFL.

Tampa Bay will return to Raymond James Stadium, a place where the team finished with a 6-2 record during the regular season, to host the Giants next weekend.

Tampa Bay’s opening possession started with three straight runs by Pittman, picking up 11 yards. Those runs were followed by a 52-yard pass from McCown to a wide-open Chad Lucas, who was eventually tackled at the 5-yard line. On third-and-goal from the 3, McCown threw a quick slant to tight end Jerramy Stevens to give Tampa Bay a 7-0 lead with 11:04 left in the first quarter. The Bucs’ opening drive covered 67 yards in seven plays and consumed 3:56 off the clock.

The Panthers answered the Bucs’ score with a field goal after a 12-play drive, but a defensive holding call on Derrick Brooks during the kick gave Carolina a first-and-goal on the 2-yard line. Two plays later, Moore found tight end Christian Fauria in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. With 3:55 left in the first quarter, the score was tied at 7-7 after Carolina’s 14-play scoring drive. The big play on the drive came on third-and-8 when Steve Smith hauled in a 25-yard pass to get the ball into Tampa Bay territory at the 45-yard line.

On third-and-7 from the Panthers’ 17, Moore threw a pass to Smith that was picked off by Phillip Buchanon at the 22-yard line and returned four yards to the 18. But Tampa Bay’s drive fizzled inside the red zone and the Bucs were forced to settle for a 31-yard field goal from Matt Bryant. With 12:32 left in the second quarter, Tampa Bay led 10-7.

Carolina would take the lead for the first time on its next possession, driving 68 yards in 11 plays and converting three third-and-1 situations in the process. On the final third-and-1 of the drive, Moore rolled to his left and threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Dante Rosario, who hauled in a touchdown over the outstretched arm of cornerback Sammy Davis. With 6:40 left in the second quarter, the Panthers led 14-10.

Tampa Bay had to punt on its next offensive possession, but linebacker Quincy Black stripped return man Ryne Robinson of the ball at the Carolina 17 and safety Will Allen recovered the fumble for the Buccaneers. After a 5-yard false start penalty on guard Matt Lehr backed Tampa Bay up to the Carolina 22, McCown found tight end Alex Smith down the middle of the field on first down for 18 yards. Panthers safety Marquand Manuel was flagged for leading with the helmet, giving Tampa Bay a first-and-goal on the 2-yard line. Michael Bennett’s first run gained one yard, but his second down carry lost four. McCown’s pass on third down was incomplete, forcing the Bucs to have to settle for another Bryant field goal, this one from 23 yards out. With 2:34 left before halftime, the Bucs trimmed the Panthers’ lead to 14-13.

On the ensuing kickoff, Robinson returned the ball 60 yards down to the Tampa Bay 35. Rosario hauled in a 12-yard catch down to the Tampa Bay 23, picking up a first down. Williams ran for 13 yards on the next play, picking up another first down at the Tampa Bay 10. Robinson hauled in a pass down to the 1-yard line on third down, forcing a 19-yard field goal attempt by Kasay. The kick was good and with 16 seconds left in the first half, the Panters’ lead increased to 17-13.

Tampa Bay reclaimed the lead in the third quarter on the longest scoring drive in Buccaneers history. The Bucs traveled a franchise-record 98 yards in 10 plays, culminating with a 23-yard touchdown toss from McCown to Bennett on a screen pass down the right sidelines. McCown was 4-of-4 for 41 yards on a drive that picked up five first downs, but his biggest play came on a 31-yard scramble down the left sidelines down to the Carolina 25. With 6:57 left in the third quarter, Bennett’s touchdown catch put Tampa Bay on top 20-17.

The Bucs’ lead didn’t last long as the Panthers covered 68 yards in 2:48 with the drive lasting just five plays. The big play was a 47-yard catch by Drew Carter in double coverage against Davis and Allen down to the Tampa Bay 1. On the next play, Williams dove into the end zone for a touchdown, giving Carolina a 24-20 lead with 14:02 left in the third quarter.

The Panthers’ next possession was fraught with miscues as defensive end Greg Spires recorded a 5-yard sack on first down back at their 31-yard and then a shotgun snap from rookie center Ryan Kalil sailed past Moore, who recovered the ball back at the Carolina 10 on third down. A 24-yard loss up a fourth-and-36 situation.

Tampa Bay started at its own 46-yard line after a 15-yard punt return by Micheal Spurlock. After picking up a first down, McCown missed a wide-open Pittman, who was running down the left sideline. Two plays later, the Bucs had to settle for a 49-yard field goal with 14:02 left in the fourth quarter to pull within one point of Carolina, 24-23.

Carolina’s lead swelled to 31-23 with 6:24 left in the game after a six-play, 69-yard drive. Williams picked up 56 on the drive, the last 32 of which came on a touchdown jaunt.

McCown tried to rally the Bucs and threw three straight completions, the first of which went to Michael Clayton for a total of 40 yards. A 9-yard pass to Kenneth Darby got the ball down to the Carolina 27. But on second-and-1, McCown was flushed from the pocket, rolled right and found Darby wide open inside the 5-yard line. But McCown’s pass was underthrown and was intercepted by Richard Marshall at the Carolina 7 with 4:48 left in regulation.

Tampa Bay wouldn’t threaten again, falling to 9-7 to close out the regular season.

IT WAS OVER WHEN…
After Bucs backup quarterback Luke McCown threw an ill-advised interception at the Carolina 7-yard line with just under five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay had one last chance to attempt to tie the game after trailing 31-23. The Bucs defense forced a punt with 1:52 left and had good starting field position at the Tampa Bay 43. But a 5-yard pass to wide receiver Michael Clayton followed a 14-yard sack, which forced a third-and-19 situation at the 34-yard line. A 12-yard pass play to Clayton set up fourth-and-7 at the Tampa Bay 46, but McCown’s pass to wide receiver Brian Clark fell incomplete.

PEWTERREPORT.COM’S PEWTER PLAYER OF THE GAME
Tampa Bay kicker Matt Bryant was 3-of-3 on his field goal attempts against Carolina with his kicks coming from 31, 23 and 49 yards. The reason why he’s the PewterReport.com Pewter Player of the Game is because the Bucs simply relied on him too much today, as the team has down the stretch. The Bucs have settled for too many field goals inside the red zone and did that twice today. The difference between two touchdowns and two field goals is eight points, which was the margin of defeat today in a 31-23 defeat.

Bryant finished the 2007 season kicking 28-of-33 field goals (84.8 percent) and made 14 of his last 15 kicks, including his last eight. His lone miss during that 15-game span was a 53-yarder at New Orleans. Bryant’s 84.8 percent is a career best and ranks second in team history behind Steve Christie’s 85.2 percent (23-of-27) in 1990. Bryant has scored 285 points with the Buccaneers, moving him into fifth place in team history for points scored.

Bryant raised $122,750 with his field goal kicks in his Kicking for Kids charity program.

RECORDS, MILESTONES AND NOTES
• On defense, Buccaneers middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and strong safety Kalvin Pearson got their first start of the season. Trotter finished with a team-leading eight tackles. Pearson had seven tackles.  

• On offense, Chad Lucas made his first start at wide receiver and finished with a career-high five passes for 82 yards, including a 52-yarder.

• Tampa Bay’s 10-play, 98-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter was the longest scoring drive in Buccaneers history, surpassing the nine-play, 97-yard drive versus New Orleans (Nov. 2, 2003).

• The Bucs finished their 2007 campaign with a 6-2 home record, which is tied for the second-best mark in team history behind the 7-1 mark in 1999.

• Tampa Bay’s offense set a franchise-record for fewest interceptions thrown in a single-season with eight. The previous record was 10 in 2002.

STATS THAT COUNT
On Tampa Bay’s third defensive series of the game, the Bucs replaced linebackers Derrick Brooks and Cato June, defensive tackle Chris Hovan, safety Tanard Jackson and cornerbacks Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber with linebackers Adam Hayward and Quincy Black, defensive tackle Ryan Sims, safety Kalvin Pearson and cornerbacks Sammy Davis and Phillip Buchanon. … Bucs cornerback Phillip Buchanon picked off his third pass of the season. … Tampa Bay rookie Kenneth Darby returned his first NFL kickoff return for 14 yards, rushed for nine yards on his first two NFL carries and had 16 yards on his first two NFL catches. … Bucs quarterback Luke McCown’s 31-yard run was a career high. His two touchdown passes tied a career high (at New Orleans, Dec. 2, 2007). … Bucs tight end Jerramy Stevens’ first quarter touchdown catch gave him four on the season, which is second only to Joey Galloway, who leads the team with six. … Tampa Bay running back Michael Bennett had a season-high 15 carries for 39 yards (2.6 avg.), in addition to two catches for 28 yards, including a 23-yard scoring catch. … Bucs defensive end Greg Spires recorded his second sack of the year and the 39.5 sack of his career.

BUCS’ STARTING LINEUPS VS. THE PANTHERS
Starting offense:

WR Chad Lucas
LT Donald Penn
LG Arron Sears
C John Wade
RG Davin Joseph
RT Jeremy Trueblood
TE Alex Smith
WR Michael Clayton
QB Luke McCown
FB Byron Storer
RB Michael Pittman

Starting defense:
LE Kevin Carter
UT Jovan Haye
NT Chris Hovan
RE Gaines Adams
WLB Derrick Brooks
MLB Jeremiah Trotter
SLB Cato June
LCB Brian Kelly
FS Tanard Jackson
SS Kalvin Pearson
RCB Ronde Barber

Starting specialists:
K Matt Bryant
P Josh Bidwell
LS Andrew Economos

BUCS-PANTHERS INACTIVES
BUCS INACTIVES: FB B.J. Askew, RB Earnest Graham, G Dan Buenning, WR Joey Galloway, WR Ike Hilliard, SS Jermaine Phillips, MLB Barrett Ruud and QB Jeff Garcia (emergency quarterback).



PANTHERS INACTIVES: WR Jason Carter, WR Travis Taylor, CB Patrick Dendy, SS Chris Harris, LB James Anderson, OT Frank Omiyale, DT Gary Gibson and Vinny Testaverde (emergency quarterback).

BUCS INJURIES
Fullback B.J. Askew (ankle), wide receiver Joey Galloway (shoulder), wide receiver Ike Hilliard (knee) did not play due to injury. Rookie left guard Arron Sears injured his ankle on the opening series and did not return. Defensive tackle Greg Peterson suffered a hamstring strain in the second half and did not return.

KICKOFF CONDITIONS
The announced attendance for the Buccaneers vs. Panthers game at Raymond James Stadium was 65,609. The kickoff temperature was 80 degrees with 64 percent humidity under sunny skies.

UP NEXT

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-6) will host the New York Giants (10-6) at Raymond James Stadium next Sunday, Jan. 6 at 1 p.m. likely to be broadcast on FOX.

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Scott Reynolds is in his 23rd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]