Panthers Lose Grip on NFC South; Fall To Bucs

Austin Penny@@AustinPennyAnalyst IOctober 13, 2008

The Carolina Panthers missed an opportunity to take command of the NFC South on Sunday, getting embarrassed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 27-3, at Raymond James Stadium. 

The Panthers, who have held the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, and Michael Turner among others under 100 yards on the ground, allowed 115 yards to veteran Bucs running back Warrick Dunn.  Jeff Garcia continued his dominance of the Panthers, improving to 5-0 in his last five starts against Carolina; including two with the Bucs. 

The game was in Tampa Bay’s control from the first drive, where Carolina was forced to punt after going three-and-out.  That punt never left the foot of Jason Baker, as rookie linebacker Gino Hayes blocked the kick and scooped up the ball before returning it 22 yards for a touchdown less than three minutes into the game. 

The Panthers were forced to punt after another three-and-out on their next possession; almost surrendering another blocked kick.  The Buccaneers offense was in sync from the outset, with only two drives in the first quarter, scoring on the second. 

Jake Delhomme ran into some adversity after the running game failed for the Panthers, completing only 51 percent of his passes for 242 yards and no touchdowns to go along with three interceptions and a 38.6 quarterback rating.  The three interceptions stand out as a sore spot for Delhomme, but that stat is only relevant on paper, as all three picks came on balls that should have been caught by receivers. 

The Panthers showed promise on a couple of drives in the first half.  The first came at the end of the first quarter, after the Bucs scored their first touchdown of the afternoon.  The Panthers drove the ball 70 yards behind a 48-yard catch by Steve Smith and first-down runs by DeAngelo Williams and Brad Hoover. 

Just when it looked like the Panthers were going to punch it in and make a ball game out of it, Jonathan Stewart tripped over Delhomme after taking the ball on second-and-goal. Then Delhomme nearly threw an interception on third down, forcing the Panthers to settle for a field goal that would prove to be their only points of the game and take most of the wind out of Carolina’s offensive sails.

The only other promising drive for the Panthers came late in the second quarter as the Panthers were trying to score before the half to keep the game close and pick up some momentum heading into the locker room. 

The Panthers looked like the team that had been missing from the game up to that point, starting from their own six yard line and mixing the pass and run to move the ball down to the Bucs’ 34 yard-line.  Delhomme’s heave to the end zone was deflected by Muhsin Muhammad and intercepted by Buccaneers safety Jermaine Phillips, however, and the Panthers hopes for a comeback pretty much died there. 

The Panthers never showed any signs of life in the second half, managing to cross midfield only once before the latter stages of the game when the game had already been decided.  Smith dropped a pass that turned into an interception early in the fourth quarter and dropped a sure touchdown pass in the game’s waning minutes.  Smith finished with six catches for 112 yards to lead the Panthers' offense. 

The Panthers obviously struggled with Tampa Bay’s defensive prowess, as their usually- dynamic rushing attack was halted by the Bucs’ front line.  This forced the Panthers into more passing situations, and Delhomme could not get on the same page with his receivers.  Williams and Stewart combined for 39 yards and no scores; numbers that would spell doom for any team in the NFL who prides themselves on a rush-first, pass-second offense. 

Some of the Panthers' running issues could be the result of missing Jeff Otah and Ryan Kalil from the offensive line.  Jordan Gross returned after missing one game with a grade three concussion, but the line looked porous at several key times throughout the game. 

The Buccaneers did not make it any easier for the Panthers on a day when the team hit a brick wall in terms of season momentum. Garcia completed 15-of-20 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown; numbers that do not justify how well he managed the game in his first game since losing the opener against the Saints

The Bucs constantly looked like the more prepared team on Sunday, out-hustling and out-coaching the Panthers. The fact that the Panthers allowed 100 yards rushing for the first time this season perhaps sheds light on the way they played throughout the afternoon.

It seemed as though Carolina never fully recovered from the blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown at the start of the game. They never got into a rhythm on either side of the ball after that.

The loss marked the first loss for the Panthers in Raymond James Stadium since 2002—the year the NFC South was created.  It was also just the second career loss for Delhomme against Tampa Bay, making his record 7-2 all-time against the Bucs. 

The NFC South is now wide open heading into Week Seven.  The Falcons pulled off a last-second victory against the Bears on Sunday afternoon to improve to 4-2 and grab a share of the division lead.  The Bucs win over the Panthers put both teams at 4-2 and New Orleans is lurking in the shadows only one game back at 3-3. 

The Falcons have their bye week in Week Seven while the Saints and Panthers will go at it in Charlotte.  Tampa Bay hosts Seattle on Sunday Night Football as they try to build on this weekend’s victory. 

With their second straight division game, Carolina will be in an interesting spot as they open up a two-game home stretch before their bye week in Week Nine.  This could prove to be a wake-up call or the beginning of a disaster for the Panthers; only time will tell.