<
>

Panthers rally past Bucs to creep above .500

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- After a 15-day layover to stew about
their fourth-quarter meltdown against Dallas, the Carolina Panthers
came out so flat on offense that the crowd booed them off the field
at halftime.

Steve Smith was feeling sick, Keyshawn Johnson fumbled, Jake
Delhomme threw an interception and punter Jason Baker was awfully
busy the rest of the time.

In the second half, the bumbling Tampa Bay Buccaneers bailed
them out.

Delhomme threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Johnson for the
go-ahead score in the third quarter and Julius Peppers had three
sacks and recovered a fumble as the Panthers beat the Buccaneers
24-10 on Monday night to end a two-game losing streak.

Smith was seen repeatedly vomiting into a garbage can on the
sidelines, once after a long catch early in the second half. But he
stayed in the game, catching eight passes for 149 yards, including
a 36-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter that sealed it.

"My little girl was sick," Smith said, "and so, she's a
daddy's girl, kissing on me and so -- I got the flu. What happens in
the house just goes around the parents."

Smith said he fought through the wooziness, because "this is
how I feed my family."

Rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski threw two interceptions and
lost a fumble for the Buccaneers (2-7), who committed turnovers on
four of five possessions in the second and third quarters to blow a
7-0 halftime lead in their third straight loss.

"I'm just sick about the outcome of the game," Bucs coach Jon
Gruden said. "Carolina is a good football team. We turned the ball
over and missed some opportunities to make some big plays."

The Panthers, who had said they couldn't wait to play again
after being outscored 25-0 in the final quarter against the
Cowboys, managed only three first downs and 98 yards in the first
half. Their drives in that half went: punt, fumble, punt, punt,
punt, interception.

"The first half we didn't run it well enough, we didn't throw
it well enough," Delhomme said. "It was an embarrassment in the
first half. Second half we answered. The defense forced turnovers
and we made more plays. We did enough things to win in the second
half."

Fans, upset with the play-calling and the Panthers inability to
run, showed their displeasure early and saved the loudest boos as
the Panthers walked off the field at halftime with only three first
downs against a team missing three defensive starters to injury,
including Simeon Rice.

Carolina scored on four of their first six drives in the second
half -- but then, the Buccaneers made it easy for the Panthers to
come back. Gradkowski's third turnover of the game, a fumble forced
by Chris Draft and recovered by Peppers, gave Carolina the ball at
the Tampa Bay 44.

Delhomme then found Smith for a 21-yard catch-and-run, setting
up Delhomme's 4-yard TD pass to Keyshawn Johnson. It gave Carolina
its first lead, 10-7 midway through the third quarter.

Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, held to 44 yards on 15 carries,
fumbled on the next possession and Mike Minter recovered at the
Tampa Bay 16. Four plays later Brad Hoover's 5-yard touchdown run
put Carolina up 17-7.

"I got careless with the ball," Williams said. "I think my
turnover created momentum for Carolina."

It marked the eighth time in nine games the Panthers held the
lead going into the fourth quarter, unlike on three previous
occasions, the Panthers held on with Peppers, who took over the
league lead with 11 sacks, making life difficult for Gradkowski.

Coming into the game with only one interception in 186 games, an
NFL record for most attempts without two picks, Gradkowski
struggled with his accuracy. He overthrew open Joey Galloway for
what would have been a touchdown in the first quarter.

"I have to go out there and not try to do to much," said
Gradkowski, who became the starter when Chris Simms suffered a
ruptured spleen in the first meeting with Carolina. "I feel like I
was competing. Sometimes you just try to do too much."

Gradkowski later underthrew two passes near the end zone,
resulting in interceptions for Ken Lucas and Shaun Williams. He
even bounced a pass off Peppers' helmet and coach Jon Gruden
started screaming at him in the first half.

"I think the first series, we had Galloway wide open. You've
got to make those plays," Gruden said. "Then we had [Michael]
Clayton at the end of the half and we didn't make that play. It's a
turnover. We fumbled the ball in successive series to start the
second half. That's a big reason why we lost."

Gradkowski, who was 17-of-32 for 173 yards, did take advantage
when Ronde Barber ripped the ball away from the ex-Buccaneer
Johnson near midfield late in the first quarter. Five plays later
Gradkowski tossed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Ike Hilliard.

That was enough to take a halftime lead on the Panthers. The
boos started early when offensive coordinator Dan Henning called
for a running play on third-and-11 and DeShaun Foster gained only
five yards.

By the end, everyone in Carolina -- even Smith -- was feeling
better with the win.

"It means in the second half of the season," Smith said,
"we're 1-0."

Game Notes
Smith, who said he wouldn't return punts anymore after
fumbling one against Dallas Oct. 29, returned one punt for no gain
in the first half. ... Alstott's second quarter reception moved him
past Johnson into third place on the Buccaneers' all-time list. ...
Besides Rice, Ellis Wyms (ankle) and Shelton Quarles (knee) sat out
for the Bucs. ... The Panthers have won seven of the past eight
meetings between the teams.