GAME SNAPSHOTKICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Brian Baldinger, Jay Glazer; DirecTV
SERIES: 9th meeting. Series tied 4-4. The Panthers have won three straight, including a 21-14 victory in November at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. In that game, Martin Gramatica missed three field goals, including one that would have put the Bucs ahead late in the game. QB Jake Delhomme drove Carolina to the winning touchdown, connecting on a 40-yard touchdown pass with Keary Colbert with less than one minute to play.
2004 RANKINGS: Panthers: offense 16th (24th rush, 12th pass); defense 17th (19th rush, 17th pass). Bucs: offense 22nd (26th rush, 16th pass); defense 4th (20th rush, 1st pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers offense has been on a roll, but has to be concerned with allowing 14 sacks in the past four games heading into a game against the Bucs second in the NFL with 44 sacks. Tampa Bay will blitz from anywhere, putting the onus on the offensive line and QB Jake Delhomme to make quick reads. He would be helped immensely from a strong game by RB Nick Goings, and the Bucs are allowing 123.2 rushing yards per game. Tampa Bay's biggest concern on offense has to be blocking Panthers DE Julius Peppers, who has been nearly unstoppable the past month. Their second concern is turnovers, and especially their 14 fumbles this season. The Bucs' offense is much improved with WRs Joey Galloway and Joe Jurevicius healthy, but it still isn't potent enough for the team to overcome losing the turnover margin. RB Michael Pittman has been effective, but has also lost five fumbles.
FAST FACTS: Panthers: WR Muhsin Muhammad has five 100-yard receiving games and 10 touchdowns in his last eight games. ... Have averaged 29.3 points the past six games. Bucs: Have lost 14 games by seven points or less the past two seasons. ... Have 14 fumbles this season.
--RB Nick Goings goes for his fifth 100-yard rushing game in six weeks when he meets the Bucs on Sunday. He had 106 yards in the last meeting against Tampa Bay, but did not score.
--DT Kindal Moorehead will be a key to stopping Michael Pittman on Sunday. The Panthers held Pittman to 29 yards rushing in the first meeting, but they allowed him to catch eight passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns.
--QB Jake Delhomme has been sacked 14 times in the past four games, an area on concern for the Panthers. Look for shorter drops from Delhomme on Sunday against the sack-happy Bucs.
--LB Dan Morgan is flying high after being named to the Pro Bowl earlier this week. He should have a major impact in Sunday's game.
--TE Mike Seidman will continue to see more balls thrown his way this week as the Panthers look for more options in the offense.
--WR Muhsin Muhammad has been unstoppable for the Panthers over the past eight weeks. Only one team has slowed him down during that span and it happened to be the Bucs, who held him to 52 yards on two receptions.
--RB Michael Pittman is averaging 107.5 yards of total offense per game. His 60 points scored is tied for seventh in the NFC despite missing three games.
--FB Mike Alstott is averaging 5.41 rushing attempts this season, the lowest of his career.
--WR Joe Jurevicius has three receptions in his last three games. He has been used primarily as the Bucs' No. 3 wideout.
--WR Joey Galloway has five touchdowns -- including one on a punt return -- in his last three games. The Bucs overthrew him for TDs twice during that stretch.
--QB Brian Griese has nine INTs in his last six games. He threw just one pick in his first four games this season.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:Panthers:
Bucs coach Jon Gruden appears to be losing a little sleep this week worrying about Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers.
"I wish you wouldn't have brought his name up," Gruden said. "I don't even let my kids bring Dr. Pepper in the house to be honest with you.
"He is really something. He is a guy I really enjoy watching. He is just a tremendous football player. Forget about a pass rusher and defensive end, he is as loose and elusive an athlete for a big man I have ever seen. I enjoy competing with him because I consider him one of the very best."
Asked if Peppers concerns him more playing defense or offense, Gruden replied, "Let's just say he concerns me."
Peppers has 10 sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles this year and will face a favorable matchup this Sunday against Bucs right tackle Kenyatta Walker.
Carolina needs to step up its pass rush and force Brian Griese, one of the league's more accurate passers, into some incompletions or, better yet, some interceptions.
Despite a diminishing role, fullback Mike Alstott said he expects to be in a Bucs uniform next season.
"I expect to be back here," Alstott said. "I have another year on my contract and I expect to be back.
"Players can't control that. You have a contract, you go out and prepare week to week and after the season is over, you prepare in the off-season. I have a contract here, I'm a Buccaneer and I'll be a Buccaneer next year. That's my mindset. You never know what can happen. In life, in football. I feel like I'll be back here and there's no question about it. That's the bottom line."
There are reasons for Bucs fans to be worried about Alstott's future in Tampa Bay.
Alstott is signed through 2008, but his salary increases to $2 million beginning next season. And excluding his injury-shortened 2003 season, Alstott has career lows in rushing (65) attempts and yards (229) this year.
Following a first quarter fumble against New Orleans Sunday, Alstott did not touch the football against the Saints. Instead, it was Michael Pittman who was used as the ballcarrier to protect the lead and run out the clock. But Pittman's fumble late in the fourth quarter contributed to the Bucs 21-17 collapse.
On his weekly radio show on 620-WDAE, Alstott said, "When you don't get an explanation as to why your not on the field the rest of the half, yeah, you feel disrespected."
But on Thursday, Alstott said he understood coach Jon Gruden's decision to use Pittman in that situation.
"Everybody knows my situation. Pound the ball, pound the ball, finish the game, short-yardage or whatever," Alstott said. "We haven't been in a lot of goal line situations, really, this year. When we have, we either made a penalty or did something to hurt ourselves. My role is my role. I haven't been in that role a whole lot because there haven't been a lot of opportunities as far as situations on the football field.
"You've got to stay positive and wait for your time. I guess that's the definition of Mike Alstott. Just wait for your opportunity and take it and run with it."