BACK IN August,the Week 3 game between the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneerspromised to be a marquee matchup between two of the league's most evenlymatched divisional rivals. The NFC South has been won by one or the other ofthese two in three of the last four years; in '05 Carolina and Tampa Bay bothfinished 11--5, the Bucs taking the South on the strength of their divisonalrecord but the wild-card Panthers advancing further in the postseason--all theway to the NFC title game. This early battle would set the stage for anothertight race in the South.
Not quite. Thefight Carolina and Tampa Bay--both 0--2 entering Sunday--found themselves inwas one to save the season. Only three teams since 1990 have bounced back from0--3 to make the playoffs.
In Week 1 thePanthers were filleted by the Atlanta running attack, and in Week 2 they handeda victory to Minnesota on a botched trick punt return. But their response tothat ugly start showed the value of unity and veteran experience. The Panthershad been in similar holes before. In '03 they endured a three-game losingstreak on the way to the NFC title; the following year they had a 1--7 stretchbut nearly rebounded to make the postseason. Even last year's team, which fellone game short of the Super Bowl, started 1--2. "The core guys on thoseteams are on this team," said safety Mike Minter before the game. "The[feeling] in this locker room is, We're going to fight back."
That explains whythe Panthers stayed cool even after frittering away a 17--0 lead to fall behind24--23 in the fourth quarter. Carolina's winning drive included an improvisedfourth-and-seven QB draw by Jake Delhomme and a 46-yard field goal from JohnKasay with two seconds left for a 26--24 win. "It was the season," saidMinter afterward, assessing what was at stake for his team. "With twodivision losses we would really be behind the eight ball."
Instead it isTampa Bay, whose season appears all but over--not only because of the 0--3start but because they'll be without starting quarterback Chris Simms, whoafter the game required emergency surgery to remove a ruptured spleen. Yet it'spremature to declare that the Panthers are back on track. Even with the returnof All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith from a hamstring injury--he had sevencatches for 112 yards and opened up an offense that had scored a total of 19points in its first two games--Carolina was only saved by a brilliantperformance from the 36-year-old Kasay, whose game-winning kick was theshortest of his four field goals on Sunday. And given Carolina's injury-riddledoffensive line, the Panthers may have a hard time keeping pace in the NFCSouth. Left tackle Travelle Wharton is out for the season with torn ligamentsin his left knee, and center Justin Hartwig has been sidelined with a groininjury, forcing the Panthers to shuffle replacement parts in search of aneffective combination. The Bucs pressured Delhomme relentlessly, sacking himthree times and forcing two fumbles. "We're going to go through that rightnow," Delhomme said afterward about his shaky pocket. "It's our thirdstarting set of offensive linemen. But we'll get better."
They've at leastbought themselves a little time.
GONE Keyshawn Johnson's Panthers and the season both slipped from the Bucs' grasp.