Ugly Game Is Beautiful To Panthers
John Kasay's 47- yard overtime field goal had barely tumbled through the uprights when Panthers guard Kevin Donnalley unfurled a somersault at midfield, frolicking in giddy celebration. As defensive tackle Brentson Buckner ran defiantly through the tunnel, he glared up at taunting Bucs fans and issued a cruel reminder: ``The Super Bowl was last year.''

Davis Anchors Panthers' Attack
Trailing 17-0 in the third quarter, the Panthers remained true to their new identity last week against Jacksonville. Coach John Fox calmly turned to his key free-agent acquisition, and Stephen Davis validated that faith with a big second-half performance in a 24-23 victory. Davis gained 78 of his 111 yards after intermission, and he looms as a central figure today in Tampa Bay's home opener. ``Stephen's our workhorse,'' said quarterback Jake Delhomme, who also excelled down the stretch against the Jaguars. ``This team will live and die with Stephen Davis.''

In notching his 20th career 100-yard game, Davis offered fresh evidence the Redskins may have erred by allowing him to leave after seven productive seasons in the nation's capital. Davis, 29, was deemed a poor fit for Steve Spurrier's scheme, but he was attractive to Carolina, which will rely on a dominating defense and a ball-control offense to challenge the Bucs in the NFC South. Tampa Bay is 1-9 since 1999 when allowing a 100-yard rusher, and Davis burned the Bucs for 141 yards three years ago in Tampa Bay's 20-17 overtime loss at Washington.

In Carolina's opening possession of the third quarter last Sunday, Davis carried the ball on the first three plays, gaining 24 yards to trigger a touchdown drive. He finished with 22 carries, and the Bucs are anticipating a full dose of No. 48 this afternoon. ``He's been doing it since his days at Auburn,'' said defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. ``There's no doubt the Panthers gear their attack around Davis. But we're out to turn them one-dimensional, put the ball in the hands of Delhomme and see what he can do.''

Given Delhomme's inexperience and Tampa Bay's fierce pass rush, the Panthers are likely to turn to Davis early and often. ``If we can't stop the run today, we're going to lose,'' said Bucs defensive end Greg Spires.

One Buccaneer with a different perspective on Carolina's offensive catalyst is defensive tackle Warren Sapp. He said Davis pushed him during an exhibition game that turned expensive for Sapp. ``I don't have any respect for Stephen Davis,'' Sapp said. ``He knows you can't fight in a preseason game. That game ended up costing me $5,000.''
Only two years removed from a 1-15 season, the Panthers beat the Bucs 12-9 Sunday in a sloppy, ugly game that made a beautiful statement for the visitors. Last week's 24-23 comeback against Jacksonville was nice, but this was the defending NFL champions at their place - with the Bucs favored by 9 1/2 points and 65,621 pewter supporters poised for victory. ``We weren't perfect today, but those guys on the other side are the best from last year,'' said left tackle Todd Steussie, who survived his 71- minute trench dance with Pro Bowl defensive end Simeon Rice. ``And there's a lot of people who would say the Bucs are the best team right now. There's no doubt Rice makes it interesting ... him and the rest of that front four.''

The Panthers finished 7-9 in their first season under Coach John Fox and an unbeaten preseason slate added to the optimism in Charlotte. Before long, the rest of the NFC South could have Carolina on their mind. ``It's a great win,'' General Manager Marty Hurney said. ``This was a heart win, it came from the heart.''

The Panthers won despite more penalties (16) than first downs (14). They converted four of 17 on third down and averaged a mere 4.0 yards per snap, but three blocked kicks, including two by defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, kept them in the game. As expected, Stephen Davis carried the offensive load, gaining 142 yards in 33 carries to compensate for quarterback Jake Delhomme's miserable day. Delhomme was picked off twice, completed only nine of 23 attempts and finished with a passing rating of 15.9. ``We've had other games like this in other seasons and managed to lose them all,'' center Jeff Mitchell said. ``What a win. That front four down the hall is bad to the bone. Anytime you play Tampa, it's a long day.''

The Panthers persevered into the night, stretching their winning streak to four games heading into a bye week. ``I'll never forget this game,'' said Jenkins, whose block of Martin Gramatica's extra- point attempt forced the overtime session. ``This was a dogfight, no other way to put it, and we wanted it more than them.''

Defensive end Mike Rucker was a force all day, hounding Brad Johnson on many of his 61 pass attempts. Reserve linebacker Brian Allen, thrust into a starting role because of injuries, led Carolina with 10 tackles and special teams excelled, with punter Todd Sauerbrun averaging 47.9 yards and Steve Smith setting up the winning field goal with a 52-yard punt return. ``All we preach around here is poise,'' Buckner said. ``Before we went to overtime, me and Derrick Brooks looked at each other and said that this was a heavyweight fight. That was football out there today and by the grace of God, Jenkins made a great play and got us to overtime.''

And took Delhomme off the hook. ``Defense and special teams played outstanding,'' Delhomme said. ``That's a great football team we beat today. They aren't champions for nothing.''