Since the week six game between the Panthers and Buccaneers until now, I would not have imagined that the NFC South would be the tightest division in the NFL. Or that these teams would be tied for first in their division.
And the division would be decided on the grand stage of Monday Night Football.
Tampa Bay and Carolina both sport 9-3 records.
Not bad for Carolina which was supposed to be rebuilding this season.
Also not bad for a Tampa Bay team that lost Cadillac Williams and was unable to acquire Brett Favre in the offseason. They faced the prospect of a mediocre season at best.
Now these teams will play on Monday night to decide first place in the division and get the upper hand for a first-round playoff bye and for the chance to duke it out with Atlanta for the remaining two wild-card slots.
A Look Back at Week Six Statistics
Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia, who had 15 completions and a touchdown in 20 attempts, proved why he should have started all along.
Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, who made 20 completions in 39 attempts, threw three costly interceptions in the game—one of many rough games of late this season. The interceptions could have cost the team at least two touchdowns and a field goal.
In the rushing game, Carolina's two-headed monster of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart was contained for a combined 39 yards rushing.
The Panthers standout receiver Steve Smith was double-teamed throughout the game and held to six receptions for 112 yards. He also dropped two passes, possibly costing Carolina two scores.
The Panthers defense also had a quiet day against the Buccaneers. But this week they should be a changed defense.
Defensive end Julius Peppers had a productive season, linebacker Jon Beason has made some timely interceptions, defensive back Chris Gamble has shown enough on the field to get a contract extension, and defensive back Ken Lucas produces week in and week out.
What to Expect in This Game
This week the NFC South's two best teams will throw everything they have at each other.
Look for the Panthers to utilize the running threats of Williams and Jonathan Stewart more effectively, even though the Bucs' run defense ranks No. 9 in the league.
In addition, the offensive line has done a nice job of blocking for the running backs, a la Travelle Wharton's recovery of Stewart's dropped ball at the three-yard line last Sunday in Green Bay.
Delhomme has been shaky of late, but he has also shown that he can play effectively under pressure. I would rather rest our fate on a quarterback who plays his best in a come-from-behind situation rather than one who builds a lead and tires and makes costly mistakes in the fourth quarter.
Smith reminded us who may have forgotten what he has under the hood.
The contorted, leaping catch while being double-covered by two defenders and picking up three extra yards after recovering from the fall of a reception.
While we don't use him often as a receiver, he has the speed, shiftiness, and power that today's NFL demands.
Williams and Westbrook both had four touchdowns each in their teams' wins.
I hope when the Panthers face-off against the Buccaneers on Monday night that they still have the awful taste of a dreadful loss in week six.
The Panthers are proving each week they are a reincarnation of the 2003 Cardiac Cats.