Panthers Leave Door Cracked; Bucs Can't Capitalize
The Bucs found encouragement on one scoreboard and grief on the other. As Tampa Bay was mounting a comeback from a 14-0 deficit against the Saints on Sunday, the out-of-town scoreboard flashed a welcome result from Houston's Reliant Stadium: Texans 14, Panthers 10. By completing a frantic rally, Tampa Bay had a chance to travel to Charlotte, N.C., next week only one game behind first-place Carolina in the NFC South. Instead, the Saints used John Carney's 47-yard field goal in the final seconds to pull out a 17-14 triumph that left the Bucs thinking about what might have been. ``Beating Carolina would be a great way to start the second half of our season,'' tight end Ken Dilger said after the Bucs fell to 4-4 at the halfway point for the fifth time in six years. ``We're 4-4, they're 6-2 and we have a good chance to win our last eight games. Sunday will be our biggest test of the season in terms of self-respect and dignity.''

Carolina coach John Fox, adopting Jon Gruden's mantra from 2002, said he was disappointed with Sunday's loss but pleased the Panthers went 3-1 in each of the first two quarters of the season. In maintaining their two-game lead over the Bucs, the Panthers know they can take a huge step toward a division title by completing a season sweep against Tampa Bay. ``We're going to be ready,'' safety Mike Minter said after Carolina's loss. ``I mean, it's Tampa coming in and they are going to be ready. I guarantee they are going to come in fired up and playing Super Bowl style.''

The Bucs were far off their Super Bowl from Sunday, committing six turnovers and falling to 1-3 at home before heading to Ericsson Stadium. ``This is a wacky league and it's ripe for the taking,'' Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. ``The way I look at it, at least we didn't lose any ground to Carolina today.''

The Panthers spoiled the Sept. 14 home opener at Raymond James Stadium, edging Tampa Bay 12-9 in overtime as the Bucs missed a potential game-winning extra point only hours after raising a championship banner. Sunday, they expect to extract a little payback. ``Next week is the biggest game there is,'' safety Dwight Smith said. ``We haven't played Tampa Bay Buccaneers football as of yet. We're a few plays away from being 7-1 ... but we're not.''

A victory against the Saints would have placed immense pressure on the young Panthers, who are only two years removed from a 1-15 season. ``We're at that midpoint of the season where you might be feeling that monkey on your back, but you've got to shake him off,'' Carolina wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. ``We'll come back next week and play well.''

Kenyatta Walker is certain about one aspect of next week's matchup. ``That will be a physical, physical game next week,'' he said. ``And as an offensive lineman, I've got no problems with physical.''

Sunday's loss allowed the 4-5 Saints to creep closer to the Bucs, who may have difficulty shaking off a squandered opportunity. ``That's what gets me,'' Bucs wide receiver Keenan McCardell said. ``When you have the opportunity to capitalize on a loss by a team that's in front of you, you have to do it. We didn't.''