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TAMPA BAY 23, CAROLINA 10: Tampa Bay pulls away in the second half to improve to 8-2, best in team history.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 2002


TAMPA BAY 23, CAROLINA 10: Tampa Bay pulls away in the second half to improve to 8-2, best in team history.

TAMPA -- Some days, everything just seems to fall your way. And rest assured, the Tampa Bay Bucs could do no wrong Sunday.

It was as if every traffic light turned green for coach Jon Gruden on his way to Raymond James Stadium, the best parking spot was available with time left on the meter and when he went to put the keys in his pocket, a wad of dollar bills tumbled to the floor.

Then his luck really started to improve.

The division-leading New Orleans Saints lost to Atlanta. Green Bay, with the best record in the NFL, was upset at Minnesota. Even playoff nemesis Philadelphia, which beat Arizona, lost quarterback Donovan McNabb for the season when he broke an ankle.

It was a day when the Bucs simply couldn't lose, so they didn't.

"We knew it was all right there for us," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "We knew. But we had to take care of our business."

Tampa Bay's defense forced three turnovers in the second half to pull away and record the best start in team history with a 23-10 win over the Panthers.

The victory gave the 8-2 Bucs a one-game lead over New Orleans in the NFC South and left them tied with the Packers for the best record in the league.

Tampa Bay could gain the top position for a first-round bye and homefield advantage through the playoffs with a victory Sunday over Green Bay at RJS.

But the Bucs still don't believe anyone is taking them seriously.

"That's okay. We'll just continue to thrash people. We'll slice them up," receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "Let them continue to say Brad (Johnson) is over the hill. Keenan McCardell is too old. I'm too slow. I'm not looking for any credit. As long as I'm 70 miles from home come January -- San Diego is about 70 miles from L.A. -- that's all I care about."

"Certain teams have players with a certain pedigree. People want to go with a lot of other teams that have finished strong in the playoffs. We haven't. I wouldn't pick us either. But I don't give a rat's a-- what the guys say on those Sunday morning television shows. We control our own destiny."

But destiny's darlings did not get off to a good start against Carolina.

With an offense rejuvenated by the return of quarterback Rodney Peete, the Panthers took advantage of an Aaron Stecker fumble and drove 70 yards in nine plays for a touchdown on their first possession.

Peete's 20-yard pass to Steve Smith gave the Panthers a 7-0 lead with 6:06 left in the first quarter.

"Coach Gruden pointed out that we have never played our best ball defensively at home," Lynch said. "The New Orleans game, they scored on the first drive, and again today (Carolina) came out and scored on the first drive, so we were certainly frustrated. This unit has so much pride that when we let our team down, we want to make up for it.

"In the end, we did. Our offense did great and Martin (Gramatica) made some tough kicks in windy weather."

Tampa Bay's offense responded with its longest touchdown drive of the season, an 86-yarder capped by Keyshawn Johnson's 1-yard scoring catch on fourth and goal.

But it was the defense that helped the Bucs break open a 10-10 game by scoring 13 in the second half off three Carolina turnovers.

Defensive tackle Simeon Rice, who had two sacks to give him a team-leading 9.5 this season, stripped Peete and forced a fumble that was recovered by Warren Sapp at the Carolina 45.

Cornerback Dwight Smith intercepted a pass intended for Steve Smith, returning it to the Panthers 19. Two plays later, the Bucs caught Carolina in a safety blitz, leaving McCardell one-on-one with cornerback Terry Cousin, whom he spun like a top before catching a pass from Brad Johnson and going 22 yards for a touchdown.

After holding Carolina to three and out, the Bucs drove 54 yards in 12 plays for a 32-yard field goal by Gramatica to make it 20-10. On the next offensive play for the Panthers, Lynch intercepted Peete's pass for running back Dee Brown at the Carolina 31. The turnover set up the Bucs' final score, a 41-yard field goal by Gramatica.

"We're a confident group, man," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "We're good and we know we're good. We don't feel a team can march down the field with us."

Just how good the Bucs are is a matter of perception.

After Sunday, Tampa Bay still had beaten just one team, the Atlanta Falcons, with a winning record.

"Ask this ballclub and they'll tell you we should be 10-0," Sapp said. "The thing about it is we've always finished strong. The thing that's been hard is getting off to a quick start. It only happened one time under Tony (Dungy). But we've always been a November and December team."

For the Bucs to earn a high seed in the playoffs, they will have to finish strong again. The game against the Packers will determine the team with the best record in the NFL. Tampa Bay travels to New Orleans Dec.1 before hosting red-hot Atlanta Dec.8.

"We were running under the radar, too, when I was with the Jaguars and we were 14-2," McCardell said. "I don't mind. We can keep running under the radar. No one has to put us in there. That's okay. That's cool.

"We'll just keep winning. Sometimes it's better. We don't need all the glitz and the glory. We'll just keep on doing what we do here in Tampa and see what happens at the end of the year."

After the game, Gruden took a little survey in the locker room.

"Coach Gruden asked Dr. Joe Diaco, who has been here 27 years, if he had ever been 8-2," Lynch said. "He said, "No.' I've been here 10 and I've never even gotten a sniff of it. I've been five-dash-two, but never 8-2. But we've got a lot of unfinished business. We put ourselves in a good position tonight."

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