The underappreciated but competitive NFC South finally gets a night of its own when the 9-3 Carolina Panthers host the 9-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-3) on Monday night, when the division lead and a higher playoff seed are at stake.
This Monday night, the NFL observers of our nation will get to see this division at its best. Under the marquee of the NFL Monday Night Football lights, the Panthers and Bucs will finally get the attention which they and their division has earned during the 2008 season.
Despite entering Sunday's games tied for the third-best record in the NFL, the Panthers and Bucs clearly feel unappreciated. The lack of large media markets and marquee stars have kept the NFC South out of the limelight, despite Tampa Bay’s impressive play, Carolina's return to prominence, unexpected improvement by Atlanta (8-4), and high-scoring New Orleans (6-6).
Their combined record of 32-16 is barely behind the NFC East's mark of 32-15-1.
We only have to look at the first Panthers-Buccaneers meeting to feel uncomfortable about Carolina. A blocked punt and the first of Jake Delhomme's three interceptions staked Tampa Bay to a 14-0 first-quarter lead en route to a 27-3 rout in Week 6. This game was an embarrassment to the Panthers’ players, coaches, organization, and fans.
The Panthers have gone 5-1 since. However, their defense was carrying a sluggish offense for a while. Now, the offense has bailed out a suddenly inconsistent defense.
A week after giving up 45 points in a loss to the Falcons, the Panthers were in another shootout last week at Green Bay. Steve Smith's miraculous 54-yard catch in the snow set up DeAngelo Williams' fourth one-yard touchdown run in a thrilling 35-31 win.
The Buccaneers have won four straight, including 23-20 over New Orleans last week when they intercepted Drew Brees three times. But Tampa Bay has also had to rally to beat lowly Detroit and Kansas City in the past month.
Despite their inconsistent performances, both teams are 9-3. This NFC South rivalry squares off for their most important late season game since 2005, when the Buccaneers came to Charlotte and knocked off the Panthers 20-10 in route to winning the division.
Panthers’ WR Steve Smith may be the key. The Buccaneers contained the 5-foot-9 receiver in the first game, holding him to three catches for 43 yards. In the last two weeks, Smith has 273 yards receiving. The Panthers also have a much better rushing attack than in Week 6, with Williams 45 yards shy of 1,000. Williams has at least one rushing TD in five straight games.
However, if the Panthers are to improve to 7-0 at home, they will have to find a way to contain Tampa Bay QB Jeff Garcia. The Bucs are 6-1 since Garcia regained the starting quarterback job and Garcia has won his last five starts against Carolina. With running back Earnest Graham (ankle injury) out for the season, more is expected of Garcia.
The Buccaneers would be in firm control of the division with a win Monday, taking a virtual two-game lead over Carolina with three to play thanks to the tiebreaker edge. A Panthers victory would put them in position to win their first division title since their Super Bowl season in 2003.