NFL Preview: Panthers vs. Bucs

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 11, 2008

By Fred Goodall
Associated Press
TAMPA, Fla. ó Carolina vs. Tampa Bay. Just the thought makes the Panthers and Buccaneers seethe.
“It’s the age-old saying,” Bucs defensive tackle Chris Hovan said. “They don’t like us, we don’t like them.”
Such is life in the NFC South, where no team has finished first in consecutive seasons and the past five champions have plummeted to last place the following year ó a trend that Tampa Bay (3-2) hopes to stop in 2008.
Carolina (4-1) has won eight of 12 meetings between the teams since the formation of the division in 2002, including five straight at Raymond James Stadium, where the clubs tangle with first place on the line Sunday.
Ten-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks calls the series, dominated by Carolina since the Bucs swept the Panthers on the way to winning the Super Bowl six years ago, Tampa Bay’s biggest rivalry.
Most of the games have been close, spiced with lots of pushing and shoving and a generous amount of trash-talking. The stakes generally are high, too, even if one of them is having an off year.
“Contrary to other people’s opinion, I feel that this is the toughest division to win because every year the division champs have been another team,” Brooks said. “After Sunday we will have played all three teams, and we don’t face another division opponent until the end of November. So this is very important for us.”
Carolina, coming off a 34-0 rout of Kansas City, is eying its first 5-1 start since 2003, when the Panthers won the division title and went on to appear in the Super Bowl. They haven’t lost in Tampa in six years.
“Any time you dominate from start to finish on both sides of the ball and in the kicking game, that’s impressive,” Bucs coach Jon Gruden said of Carolina’s destruction of the Chiefs, a team that upset Denver two weeks ago.
But there’s also reason for the Panthers to be wary.
With Brian Griese at less than 100 percent after injuring his throwing elbow and shoulder against Denver, the more mobile Jeff Garcia likely will regain the starting quarterback job he lost after a poor performance in Tampa Bay’s season opener.
Garcia has beaten the Panthers four straight times, including his only start against them last year in Charlotte. With the Bucs already assured the division title, he and several other starters sat out Carolina’s win in Tampa on Dec. 30.
“He’s going to present a challenge as far as the secondary goes to stay with our wide receivers a little bit longer than maybe Griese,” Panthers cornerback Ken Lucas said, adding that Carolina’s defense can play better even better than in its shutout of Kansas City.
“It’s scary to think that we shut somebody out and we still have room for improvement. I think we do. We’re still not where we want to be.”

Other games today include: Chicago at Atlanta; Miami at Houston; Detroit at Minnesota; Oakland at New Orleans; St. Louis at Washington; Cincinnati at New York Jets; Baltimore at Indianapolis; Jacksonville at Denver; Green Bay at Seattle; Dallas at Arizona; Philadelphia at San Francisco and New England at San Diego.

The Super Bowl champion New York Giants will travel to Cleveland on monday night.

Teams with open weeks are Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Tennessee.