TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- The Carolina Panthers don't want to get ahead
Five straight victories have propelled them to a 6-2 record and
a tie for first place in the NFC South midway through the season,
but coach John Fox and his players feel it's important to keep
their strong start in perspective.
"It's like how nobody remembers halftime scores. Same way with
this season," Fox said after Sunday's 34-14 domination of the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"What does being 6-2 mean?" defensive tackle Brentson Buckner
added. "It means we can still go 6-10."
Not the way the Panthers have played since stumbling out of the
gate in September by losing two of their first three games. Lately,
they've looked more and more like the championship contenders many
expected them to be.
Stephen Davis ran for two touchdowns, Steve Smith caught his
ninth TD pass and Chris Gamble scored on a 61-yard interception
return to key the team's fifth straight victory in its bitter
division rivalry with Tampa Bay.
Since the NFC South was formed in 2002, four of seven games
between the teams have been decided by seven or fewer points. The
last two have been blowouts, but Smith said that doesn't mean much
in the grand scheme of things.
"All we do is come out here and make plays. Every week is
different," the speedy receiver said. "The thing they have that
we don't have is a championship, and that's what we're trying to
The Bucs (5-3) lost for the third time in four games, falling
out of a first-place tie with Carolina and Atlanta.
"We just got beat by a better team today," Tampa Bay's Chris
Simms said. "I'm not going to make any excuses."
Smith scored on a 35-yard pass from Jake Delhomme in the fourth
quarter, while Carolina's defense forced four turnovers and sacked
Simms five times to ruin the young quarterback's second start of
Davis scored on a 4-yard run that defensive end Mike Rucker set
up by recovering Carnell "Cadillac" Williams' fumble. Rucker also
sacked Simms to force a third-quarter fumble that led to one of
John Kasay's two field goals for the Panthers.
Delhomme's 61-yard completion to Ricky Proehl was the big play
in a five-play, 90-yard drive that Davis finished with a 1-yard run
that put Carolina up 17-7 in the second quarter. Smith's TD made it
34-7 and gave the speedy receiver his sixth 100-yard game of the
Smith, coming off an 11-catch, 201-yard performance against
Minnesota, finished with five receptions for 106 yards.
"They won because they made more plays. I didn't think they
outmanned us," Bucs defensive tackle Anthony McFarland said.
"What's disappointing for us is we had an opportunity to make a
statement and we didn't do it."
Simms completed 25 of 41 passes for 259 yards and two
interceptions. He threw a 50-yard TD pass to Joey Galloway in the
second quarter, and Mike Alstott added a 1-yard TD run in the
fourth quarter for Tampa Bay.
Simms also struggled in his first start of the season for the
injured Brian Griese, throwing two interceptions and losing a
fourth-quarter fumble in a loss at San Francisco the previous week.
The 49ers sacked him five times, and the Bucs were unable to
ease the burden on the third-year pro by running the ball.
It was much the same story against Carolina, which took away the
running game by first containing Williams and then building a big
lead to forced Simms into a situation in which he had to throw on
nearly every down.
"That was a backbreaker for them," Carolina cornerback Ken
Lucas said. "They still felt like they had a chance. We took all
the air out of them with that play."
Williams was held to 29 yards on 11 carries in his second game
since returning from a foot sprain that kept him out of two games.
Since becoming the first player in NFL history to begin his career
with three consecutive 100-yard days rushing, the Bucs rookie has
been limited to 62 yards on 35 attempts in his last three games.
"We're in a slump right now," Williams said. "We just didn't
get much done."
Delhomme was 11-of-18 for 216 yards and no interceptions,
while Davis rushed for 48 yards on 12 carries. ... A week after
being sent home from San Francisco for missing a team meeting, Bucs
DE Simeon Rice didn't have any tackles. ... Galloway had five
receptions for 83 yards. He has 12 touchdowns in his last 13 games.