KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:05 ET
TV: FOX, Kenny Albert, Brian Baldinger
SERIES: Bucs lead the all-time series 5-1, including sweeping the Panthers last season. Tampa Bay was fortunate to pull out a 12-9 win in Charlotte last year as Martin Gramatica connected on a 47-yard field goal with five seconds remaining. The Bucs overcame a 7-0 deficit to rally to a 23-10 win after the defense forced four turnovers and four sacks.
2003 RANKINGS: Panthers: offense 27th (10th rush, 28th pass); defense 21st (10th rush, 27th pass). Bucs: offense 13th (19th rush, 13th pass); defense 7th (22nd rush, 6th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers defense relies on a heavy pass rush from its
front four, but when given the time, Bucs QB Brad Johnson will target CB Terry Cousin, who surrendered a pair of long touchdown passes in the opener. To
counter the pass rush, Johnson is expected to take a lot of three- and five-step
drops and utilize the running backs in the passing game. To minimize the
pressure on new starting QB Jake Delhomme, the Panthers will turn to RB Stephen Davis. As strong as Tampa Bay's defense is, the Bucs can have trouble against
power backs as New Orleans' Deuce McAlister averaged more than 100 yards per
game against them last season.
FAST FACTS: Panthers: Delhomme will make his first start since 1999. ... DE Julius Peppers had three sacks in the two meetings last season. Bucs: K Martin Gramatica made a combined seven field goals in the two meetings last season. ... Tampa Bay is seeking its third consecutive regular-season shutout.
PREDICTED SCORE: Bucs 16, Panthers 13
--LB Dan Morgan, whose three-year NFL career has been marred by some rather bizarre injuries, has a strained hamstring and his status for Sunday's game against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers is uncertain. "I have to see how it feels," Morgan said Thursday. "I rested it today and hopefully I will do a little tomorrow. Hopefully I can play. If not, then I will be ready for Atlanta (next week)."
--LB Lester Towns could see an increased role on Sunday if Dan Morgan is unable to play. Morgan has a strained hamstring.
--WR/PR Steve Smith is looking to avenge a fumbled punt against Tampa Bay last year that cost the Panthers the game in a 12-9 loss.
--WR Muhsin Muhammad was a non-factor in both games last season against the Bucs with three catches for minimal yardage in both games. Muhammad should have better luck on Sunday with Jake Delhomme throwing passes.
--QB Jake Delhomme is anxiously awaiting his first start with the Panthers on Sunday. Delhomme should bring more offense to the Panthers and will likely throw down the field more often than Rodney Peete.
--QB Rodney Peete remains second on the depth chart.
--LB Mike Caldwell will miss 3-4 weeks with a knee sprain.
--FB Darian Barnes, who was questionable with a knee sprain, returned to practice and is expected to play in Sunday's home opener against the Panthers.
--DT Ellis Wyms, who has not played in three weeks due to a sprained ankle, practiced Thursday and should be active for Sunday's game.
--QB Brad Johnson has thrown multiple touchdown passes in eight of his last 10 games.
--RB Mike Pittman has a bruised right shoulder but practiced Thursday and will start against the Panthers.
--K Martin Gramatica has no interest in continuing his feud with Carolina punter Todd Sauerbrun. "There's nothing to say except I have a ring and he doesn't."
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Dan Morgan, whose three-year NFL career has been marred by some rather bizarre injuries, has a strained hamstring and his status for Sunday's game against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers is uncertain.
"I have to see how it feels," Morgan said Thursday. "I rested it today and hopefully I will do a little tomorrow. Hopefully I can play. If not, then I will be ready for Atlanta (next week)."
If Morgan can't play, it would leave a huge void for the Panthers at middle linebacker on Sunday in what teammate Muhsin Muhammad called a "monumental" game for the organization.
Both teams enter the game 1-0.
Panthers coach John Fox refused to say who'd start if Morgan can't play. Lester Towns is listed as second on the depth chart, but Brian Allen could also see action there, too.
Fox said he wouldn't make a decision on Morgan until game time.
Morgan said he felt the hamstring twinge during a blitz period drill late in Wednesday's practice. He walked off the field under his own power and didn't seem to be in too much pain. But Morgan did not work in Thursday's practice and was added to the injury report as questionable.
"I felt my hamstring twinge and that was about it," Morgan said.
Morgan missed five games in 2001 when he broke his left fibula after his left leg stuck in a torn up Ericsson Stadium turf. Last year he missed eight games in all - three with a groin injury and five after dislocating his left shoulder.
Morgan hoped this year would signal the end of his run of injuries.
However, he broke a metacarpal bone in his right hand in the preseason finale and wore a cast in last Sunday against Jacksonville.
"It's been rough. It has to end soon," Morgan said. "Things happen and you're going to go through things in life and obviously I'm being tested for something right now. But you just have to push through it. You can't let it get to you."
The Bucs are not forgetting Brenson Buckner's claim in training camp that the Panthers' defensive line is better than Tampa Bay's. Buckner went further than that, saying Kris Jenkins is better than Warren Sapp.
"You know what? One man told me something," said Sapp. "You don't talk about things outside your pay grade or your play grade. I don't think Brenson Buckner has any pineapple in his diet."
When asked what he meant by the pineapple reference, Sapp replied, "Ya'll don't take Pro Bowl players up there too often. The finest pineapple in the world comes from Hawaii, doesn't it? That's what I mean by pineapple in your diet."
Buckner's boast also has been a sore spot with several of Sapp's teammates. "Good defense, yeah, but I think they're blowing a little too much smoke up their own butt right now," said Bucs tackle Kenyatta Walker.
Even normally composed safety John Lynch had a stinging rebuttal to Buckner. "Well see. We do our talking with our pads and what we laid down on film speaks for itself," said Lynch. "There are a lot of people in this league that have diarrhea of the mouth. I guess that's the case up there."