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NFL: Panthers host Bucs tonight on national TV

By Mike Cranston
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden has been kidded for years about those odd facial expressions that bear a striking resemblance to Chucky, the homicidal doll from the “Child’s Play” horror films.
Gruden’s face bent into awkward shapes again when he popped in the tape of the Carolina Panthers’ last game and saw old nemesis Steve Smith making spectacular catches again.
“Steve Smith is a nightmare,” Gruden said. “He’s like Freddy Krueger. He scares the hell out of me. Every film I pick up, he’s brilliant.”
Chucky vs. Freddy Krueger, just another plot twist in the heated Buccaneers-Panthers rivalry, renewed Monday night with plenty on the line.
They’re both 9-3 and tied atop the NFC South. The winner takes control of the division in a conference so strong that depending on a wild-card berth is a risky proposition.
Two teams with a healthy dose of dislike for each other close out Week 14, and the key may be if Gruden can find a way to slow down the guy that reminds him of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” star.
“Steve, to me is the best,” said Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber, who will try to defend the speedy Smith. “He really knows how to outwork guys to catch the football. And once he catches the ball he knows how to outwork guys for extra yards. I have as much respect for Steve as anybody in the league.”
The 5-foot-9 Smith has overcome his two-game suspension for breaking teammate Ken Lucas’ nose in training camp to move within 42 yards receiving of 1,000 on the season.
In Carolina’s comeback 35-31 win over Green Bay last week, Smith had a 36-yard catch to set up the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. Then he made a remarkable leaping 54-yard grab over Charles Woodson on Jake Delhomme’s underthrown ball. It set up DeAngelo Williams’ winning 1-yard TD run.
In the past two games, Smith has 273 yards receiving. With Williams leading a stout running game, Carolina has overcome a suddenly struggling defense to win five of its last six games.
“He’s a very good player and even when he doesn’t get the ball he can affect a football game,” Delhomme said of Smith. “Just like last week with us running it, he affects it because safeties will cheat to his side.”
Smith has more 100-yard receiving games against the Buccaneers (five) than against any other team. Even though the Panthers lost the first meeting at Tampa Bay 27-3, Smith managed six catches for 112 yards.
“He just scares me. I don’t like to see Steve,” Gruden said. “I have a lot of respect for him. He’s really hurt us bad in some games.”
Smith, sixth in the league in yards receiving, doesn’t mind the Freddy Krueger comparison.
“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate it,” Smith said. “As an offensive guy, you always admire offensive-minded coaches.”
But the Bucs have put themselves in position to defend their NFC South title on the strength of their defense.

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