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Survival Rivals
Bill Syken
October 02, 2006
NFC South foes Carolina and Tampa Bay were thought to be Super Bowl contenders, but only one of them has a real shot now
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October 02, 2006

Survival Rivals

NFC South foes Carolina and Tampa Bay were thought to be Super Bowl contenders, but only one of them has a real shot now

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BACK IN August, the Week 3 game between the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers promised to be a marquee matchup between two of the league's most evenly matched divisional rivals. The NFC South has been won by one or the other of these two in three of the last four years; in '05 Carolina and Tampa Bay both finished 11--5, the Bucs taking the South on the strength of their divisonal record but the wild-card Panthers advancing further in the postseason--all the way to the NFC title game. This early battle would set the stage for another tight race in the South.

Not quite. The fight Carolina and Tampa Bay--both 0--2 entering Sunday--found themselves in was one to save the season. Only three teams since 1990 have bounced back from 0--3 to make the playoffs.

In Week 1 the Panthers were filleted by the Atlanta running attack, and in Week 2 they handed a victory to Minnesota on a botched trick punt return. But their response to that ugly start showed the value of unity and veteran experience. The Panthers had been in similar holes before. In '03 they endured a three-game losing streak on the way to the NFC title; the following year they had a 1--7 stretch but nearly rebounded to make the postseason. Even last year's team, which fell one game short of the Super Bowl, started 1--2. "The core guys on those teams 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 why the Panthers stayed cool even after frittering away a 17--0 lead to fall behind 24--23 in the fourth quarter. Carolina's winning drive included an improvised fourth-and-seven QB draw by Jake Delhomme and a 46-yard field goal from John Kasay with two seconds left for a 26--24 win. "It was the season," said Minter afterward, assessing what was at stake for his team. "With two division losses we would really be behind the eight ball."

Instead it is Tampa Bay, whose season appears all but over--not only because of the 0--3 start but because they'll be without starting quarterback Chris Simms, who after the game required emergency surgery to remove a ruptured spleen. Yet it's premature to declare that the Panthers are back on track. Even with the return of All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith from a hamstring injury--he had seven catches for 112 yards and opened up an offense that had scored a total of 19 points in its first two games-- Carolina was only saved by a brilliant performance from the 36-year-old Kasay, whose game-winning kick was the shortest of his four field goals on Sunday. And given Carolina's injury-riddled offensive line, the Panthers may have a hard time keeping pace in the NFC South. Left tackle Travelle Wharton is out for the season with torn ligaments in his left knee, and center Justin Hartwig has been sidelined with a groin injury, forcing the Panthers to shuffle replacement parts in search of an effective combination. The Bucs pressured Delhomme relentlessly, sacking him three times and forcing two fumbles. "We're going to go through that right now," Delhomme said afterward about his shaky pocket. "It's our third starting set of offensive linemen. But we'll get better."

They've at least bought themselves a little time.

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