Carolina Alone Atop NFC South After 38-23 Win Over Bucs

The Carolina Panthers needed to make a statement and regain sole possession of the NFC South – in front of a national audience, no less… and that’s exactly what they delivered. On a frosty Monday evening in Charlotte, the Panthers exacted their revenge on division rival Tampa Bay, 38-23.

It was a far cry from the 27-3 shellacking they took from the Buccaneers during their October meeting. After being held to only 40 rushing yards in that game, Carolina’s runningbacks burned the Buc’s defense, and wore them down with sheer domination. Coming into the game, Tampa Bay had amazingly allowed only one rushing touchdown all season; but the Panthers backs torched their 4th ranked defense with 2 TDs a piece, and each went over 100 yards for the second time this month.

This marked the first time in Monday Night Football’s 39-year history that two 9-3 opponents locked heads, and neither team disappointed. This was truly one of the best games on MNF in a long while.

In fact, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart became only the 6th set of teammates, since the merger in 1970, to gain over 100 yards rushing with two scores each.

Moreover, it was the first time in the NFL’s history that a runningback tandem has gained over 100 yards in the same game twice, with each back averaging over six yards per carry.

This also shows how far Carolina has come since that last meeting at Raymond James Stadium, in Tampa Bay… the Panthers improved on their paltry 2.0 yards per carry, gaining a whopping 8.1 yards on Monday night.

Third-year veteran Williams finished the night with 186 yards on 19 carries, and he surpassed Stephen Davis’s touchdown record of 12 rushing scores in a season. Stewart’s two TDs gave him eight, breaking the Panthers’ single-season record for rookies held by the late Fred Lane… the first-year pro also finished with 115 yards on 15 carries.

We cannot forget to mention the receivers, as Steve Smith registered a score and yet another 100-yard game. Smith made some incredible grabs, which is absolutely routine for him these days; he managed 117 yards on 9 catches. Muhsin Muhammad was put into action at the start of the game again this week, and he, as well, made some beautiful, tough catches. Moose had only 3 receptions for 43 yards, but his blocking prowess is immeasurable. Smith also got in on the blocking action, with both receivers helping to clear the way for the “Smash and Dash” duo. Everyone appeared to take that 27-3 loss personally, and this was truly a team effort.

Dwayne Jarrett was active for this game, meaning D.J. Hackett was not. Jarrett only had 1 reception for 7 yards, but it was an important one, as he skillfully pulled in a catch around defenders to get a timely first down.

The defense again played well, but gave up 200 yards on 9 grabs to Tampa Bay’s Antonio Bryant, who had a career day. He burned Ken Lucas on a 52-yard touchdown, and made a particularly eye-popping one-handed grab in the endzone as the end of the game drew near (but hey, we’re used to those kinds of catches with #89 on Carolina’s roster.) Warrick Dunn ran hard as always; at 33 years old this former Falcon does not appear to be slowing down at all. What a nice compliment he would’ve been to Michael Turner; but Tampa Bay, his original team, certainly realizes what they have with Dunn. It is also worthwhile to mention that Dunn is one of the NFL’s all-time good guys, who gives tirelessly to any community that’s fortunate enough to have him.

Julius Peppers harassed Garcia all night, recording 1.5 sacks; furthermore, Garcia had only been sacked 15 times coming into the game, but Carolina imposed 5 on him. Peppers also blocked an extra-point attempt for the Bucs, leaving them to finish with 23 points.

Tampa rolled out their Caddy, and he rewarded them with a 4-yard TD run; it is nice to see Cadillac Williams back on the field, as he suffered a horrific knee injury the last time he faced-off with the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. Kudos to you, Cadillac.

The Carolina D gave up 321 yards to Jeff Garcia, who went 24 of 38 attempts; but they seemed to step it up when they needed to, like the goal-line stand that forced the Bucs to settle for a field goal.

Nobody gave the Panthers much of a chance in this game, and maybe rightfully so after their last contest with Tampa; in fact, Sports Illustrated deemed this an easy win for the Bucs. Thank goodeness our boys play with more pride than that; they definitely still have a hard road in front of them, but if the Panthers can bring some of what they did Monday night, they should be alright. They stood up to the challenge on a national stage, and announced who they were.

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