Sunday couldn't have worked out more perfectly for the Pewter Pirates in terms of the NFC playoff picture, which is now beginning to take shape.
Against Carolina, the Bucs offense had two costly first half fumbles that led to all 10 of Carolina's points. The Tampa Bay defense forced the Panthers into three second half turnovers with two interceptions and a fumble, which the Bucs offense turned into 10 points.
The Bucs took the opening kickoff and marched right down the field behind the feet and hands of running back Michael Pittman. A 22-yard pass from quarterback Brad Johnson to receiver Joe Jurevicius converted a third-and-14 at midfield to give the Buccaneers a fresh set of downs deep in Carolina territory. But two plays later, running back Aaron Stecker coughed up the ball after a hit by Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker and the football was recovered by linebacker Hannibal Navies to stop the initial Tampa Bay incursion with 11:15 left in the opening period.
The turnover proved costly as the Panthers took the ball and went 70 yards in nine plays to put the first score on the board with 6:06 remaining of the first quarter. Quarterback Rodney Peete found wide receiver Steve Smith on a deep out in the right front of the end zone. Smith, the return expert, who has become a starting wide receiver as well, made a superb leaping catch in front of strong safety John Lynch. Kicker Shayne Graham was perfect with the conversion to put Carolina up 7-0.
After an exchange of punts, the Bucs put together a time consuming drive of 6:23 to knot the score. Tampa Bay traversed 86 yards in 13 plays, but it was a 1-yard play action pass from Johnson to wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson on fourth-and-goal that put the Bucs even with the Panthers. The drive was the longest of the season for the Buccaneers, equaling an 86-yard venture against the Minnesota Vikings, but exceeding the number of plays by one and the time of possession by 14 seconds. Kicker Martin Gramatica was successful with his extra point to tie the score at seven apiece with 9:27 left in the second quarter.
Carolina took the lead again with a field goal at the 6:25 mark of the second quarter. Again, the Panthers took advantage of another Buccaneers miscue on offense, and this one was by Pittman deep in Bucs territory. The Tampa Bay running back fumbled when he was hit by cornerback Dante Wesley as he was circling the left end and the ball was recovered by Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker at the Pewter Pirates' 29-yard line.
A loss of three yards on a draw play to running back Lamar Smith and an incomplete pass sandwiched around a 7-yard hook up from Peete to tight end Wesley Walls took 1:21 of clock time. Graham connected from 42 yards out to push Carolina back to a 10-7 advantage and completed the 4-yard and four-play drive.
On their next possession, Tampa Bay answered the field goal with one of their own to tie the score for the second time, but they wouldn't get any style points. After the Bucs penetrated to the Carolina 2-yard line, Tampa Bay was forced to go for the tying field goal. Gramatica's boot of 20 yards was deflected by defensive tackle Shane Burton, but still had enough impetus to crawl over the crossbar with exactly three minutes left before halftime.
The eight plays covered 59 yards and ate up 3:25 of clock time with the big play of the drive being a completion from Johnson to Jurevicius. The 26-yard catch-and-run converted a third-and-2. Jurevicius took the ball down to the Panthers' 9-yard line, but the drive stalled forcing Tampa Bay to settle for a field goal and a 10-10 tie.
An interception by Tampa Bay corner Brian Kelly on the Panthers' next possession set the Bucs up inside Carolina territory at the 44-yard line. But it was all for naught as they were forced to punt after three straight incomplete passes.
The Panthers had one last shot to take the lead before halftime. With 1:30 left in the first half Carolina used excellent clock management to move from their own 20-yard line to the Bucs' 26-yard line. The Panthers came away empty when Graham was wide to the right with his 44 yard attempt as time expired in the opening half.
The Bucs took the lead for good late in the third quarter with a little pilfering of their own. On a third-and-8 from the Carolina 17-yard line, Peete tried to connect with Smith on a quick slant, but cornerback Dwight Smith stepped in front of the ill-advised throw. It was the spark that the Buccaneers offense needed and they cashed in two plays later with a 22-yard strike from Johnson to wide receiver Keenan McCardell.
McCardell ran a flag route and then stopped while cornerback Terry Cousin bit on the outside move, leaving him wide open. It was just a simple matter of catch and run for the touchdown. This score gave the Buccaneers their first lead at 17-10 with 1:28 left in the third period.
Tampa Bay capitalized on a deflected Todd Sauerbrun punt by tight end Todd Yoder on the second play of the fourth quarter. The Bucs offense then played keep away for the next 6:57 and Gramatica drilled his second field goal of the night with this one coming from 32 yards out. The three points capped the Buccaneers' 12 plays that netted them a 54 yard drive and stretched their lead to 20-10.
Gramatica chalked up his third field goal of the game and extended the Bucs lead to 23-10 after another Carolina turnover. This steal goes to Lynch, who took the pigskin away from running back Dee Brown on the first play of the next series. Lynch stepped up when he saw that Peete was looking for Brown in the middle of the field and intercepted the ball. Seven plays later, Gramatica was true from 41 yards away with only 3:57 to go in the game.
Carolina made one last attempt to score and marched as far as the Bucs 5-yard line, but were forced to turn it over on downs to the Pewter Pirates. On fourth-and-goal at the Tampa Bay 4, reserve defensive lineman Ellis Wyms made a huge play to sack Peete for a 9-yard loss sealing the eighth Tampa Bay victory against two losses.
For the first time in a long time the Bucs control their own destiny. The Pewter Pirates received a lot of help from some unlikely sources, but now it's up to the 8-2 Bucs to take care of their own business.
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