Bucs 23 Panthers 10
For the first time ever, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 8-2. The Bucs reached that franchise high-water mark on Sunday with a 23-10 victory over Carolina, in the process moving into a tie with former division rival Green Bay for the best record in the NFL. Tampa Bay and Green Bay square off for sole possession of the league’s best mark next Sunday in Raymond James Stadium. After the Bucs defeated Carolina, 12-9, in an ‘ugly’ game three weeks ago in Charlotte, the rematch was billed as another defensive struggle, though with a twist.

While this was indeed a matchup of the league’s first and third-ranked defenses, it also marked the returns of starting quarterbacks Brad Johnson and Rodney Peete, each of whom missed the last game between the two. Statistically, Johnson and the Bucs’ defense came out on top, though Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden complimented the Panthers’ work, as well. “I tip my hat to Carolina,” said Gruden. “They are a very physical team. They came in here and really competed.”

Still, Tampa Bay out-gained Carolina, 314 yards to 231, with 66 of the Panthers’ yards coming on a last-minute desperation drive while the Bucs hung back with a 13-point lead. The Bucs’ defense forced four turnovers, including three key takeaways in the second half, and sacked Peete four times. DE Simeon Rice had two sacks, giving him seven over the last four games and a team-best 9.5 on the season. DT Warren Sapp was a question mark to play just minutes before the game due to back spasms, but was a key figure in holding RB Lamar Smith to 46 yards, including just 11 after the first quarter. Meanwhile, Johnson solved Carolina’s defense to the tune of 22-of-40 passing for 253 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The team’s offensive line, which allowed no sacks two weeks ago against Minnesota, surrendered just two on Sunday against the NFL’s top pass-rushing team. WR Keyshawn Johnson, who briefly visited the locker room after halftime due to bruised ribs, came back to finish a seven-catch, 74-yard day that included his fourth touchdown of the season.

Johnson’s touchdown, a second-quarter score that evened the game at 7-7, may have been the game’s key play. At the end of a 13-play, 86-yard drive, the Bucs faced a fourth-and-goal from the one and chose to go for it. Brad Johnson then fired a one-yard touchdown pass to WR Keyshawn Johnson, the receiver’s third TD in the last two games. On the play, Keyshawn Johnson lined up on the right end of the line but crossed behind the line of scrimmage after the snap and snuck into the left flat for the catch. “I think we needed the points at that time,” said Brad Johnson. “A lot of times haven’t even gotten into the red zone (against Carolina). We felt like we had to come away with some points. If it was a yard-and-a-half or two yards out, maybe we don’t go for it. But it was a yard out and it was a great call.”

The game-winning score went to the Bucs’ other starting receiver, Keenan McCardell, another player who missed the first matchup with Carolina. It was the product of two turnovers created by the team’s swarming defense. First, with the Panthers near midfield, DE Simeon Rice shot around T Todd Steussie on QB Rodney Peete’s blind side and swatted the ball out of the passer’s hand. DT Warren Sapp recovered at the Panthers’ 45, and though the Bucs couldn’t move into scoring range from there, they were able to pin Carolina near its own end zone with a punt. Three plays later, CB Dwight Smith intercepted a third-down slant pass at the Panthers’ 19, stepping in front of intended receiver Steve Smith with a quick move.

This time, Tampa Bay took just two plays to put it in the end zone. On second-and-13, the Panthers brought a safety blitz but the Bucs’ line picked it up, giving Johnson time to fire a 22-yard touchdown pass to WR Keenan McCardell. McCardell was left alone on CB Terry Cousin by the blitz, and when he sold a corner route Cousin bit and McCardell was all alone at the five. He was so alone, in fact, that when he wheeled around after making the catch he expected to find a defender but instead was able to trot to pay dirt.

The Bucs added two field goals in the fourth quarter, the first on an impressive, seven-minute drive. McCardell had two third-down catches to prolong that march, including a 17-yarder on third-and-nine from midfield. K Martin Gramatica finished the drive with a 32-yard field goal that gave the Bucs a 10-point lead with eight minutes to go. Gramatica added a 41-yarder at the four-minute mark after a John Lynch interception. Carolina got all of their points in the first half off Buccaneer turnovers. In the first quarter, an Aaron Stecker fumble ended a promising, game-opening drive for the home team and set up Carolina’s 70-yard touchdown march. WR Steve Smith made a leaping catch of a 20-yard pass at the goal line just in front of S John Lynch for the game’s first score. In the second quarter, a Michael Pittman fumble in the Bucs’ half of the field led to a 42-yard Shayne Graham field goal.

The Bucs tied the game before halftime with a 59-yard field goal drive keyed by WR Joe Jurevicius’ 26-yard catch-and-run on a third-and-two. The Panthers’ defense again came up big inside the 10, though it was aided when Brad Johnson lost the ball on third-and-two while trying to pump-fake. Martin Gramatica got a 20-yarder through the uprights to make it 10-10, but not before his low kick bounced off DT Shane Burton’s hand and barely spun over the crossbar. Before the Bucs kicked off, the losses by contenders piled up around the NFC. Not only did Green Bay lose to Minnesota to drop to 8-2 and New Orleans lose to Atlanta to slip to 7-3, but the victorious Philadelphia Eagles lost their all-everything quarterback, Donovan McNabb, to a broken ankle.

After the game, Gruden reacted to the Bucs move into first place. “It feels good,” he said. “At the same time, we have a lot of work to do. It’s been well-documented that some of them aren’t the most beautiful wins in the world, but any way you can win in the NFL is good.”