Panthers Zero In

Shutout of Tampa Bay sets up big showdown

Winning wasn't enough.

The Carolina Panthers didn't want any misconceptions about the totality of their victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday at Ericsson Stadium.

They wanted to hang up a goose egg for the NFL -- and specifically the San Francisco 49ers, next week's opponent -- to see.

So with less than a minute remaining and the Bucs driving toward their first points of the game, the Panthers put their defensive starters back on the field to protect a 24-0 lead and preserve the first shutout in franchise history.

``They were challenging us,'' said Carolina linebacker Kevin Greene. ``Even though the game was out of hand and in the bank, they were saying, `We're going to put some points on the board.' What we were saying was, `We don't think so.'

``The camaraderie and feeling in our huddle was amazing. I could look around and see in the eyes of everybody on the defense that we weren't giving up squat.''

Though the Buccaneers got as far as the Carolina 2, they didn't score.

Defensive end Gerald Williams stopped running back Errict Rhett for a 1-yard loss with 18 seconds remaining. Then quarterback Trent Dilfer's fourth-down pass from the 3 with 13 seconds left fell incomplete in the end zone.

``It wasn't like it was a relief thing,'' said cornerback Eric Davis, who deflected the final pass. ``It was more of everyone looking at each other saying, `I told you so.' ''

It was a storybook way for the Panthers to springboard into next week's game for the NFC West lead at San Francisco. Even coach Dom Capers, usually prone to the understatement, called it a ``showdown.''

``We have a big challenge ahead of us,'' said Capers. ``I told the guys to go home and enjoy tonight and then when they come in tomorrow, we'll have one thing on our mind: The next game, and it's obviously going to be a big one.''

The Panthers raised their record to 9-4 Sunday with their fourth straight victory, tying the franchise record for longest winning streak. They've already clinched a winning record in their second NFL season. Only a complete collapse in the final three games of the regular season could keep them out of the playoffs.

If the playoffs started today, they'd be seeded fourth in the NFC and host the Philadelphia Eagles in a first-round wild-card game.

``Right now I feel in my heart that our team is truly starting to peak at the right time,'' said linebacker Carlton Bailey. ``We have our goals set high.''

The shutout was a rare treat. There have been only six in the NFL this season. Tampa Bay has recorded two in its 21-year history and hasn't held an opponent scoreless since 1985 -- a string of 178 consecutive games.

``I could have never even imagined we would not even score three points,'' said Rhett. ``I can't understand how we could play 60 minutes and not get any points on the board. That doesn't make any sense at all.''

The shutout continued the Panthers' suffocating defensive play of the past four weeks. They've held opponents to 19 points in the past 15 quarters and haven't allowed a touchdown for 10 consecutive periods.

Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy was impressed enough to say the Panthers will ``do some damage in the playoffs.''

Most of Carolina's damage on a wet, muddy field was done with the running of Anthony Johnson (111 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown run) and a defense that sacked Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer four times and intercepted him twice.

Dilfer was blinded by the Panthers' blitz. Perhaps the key play came on the first play of the second quarter, when Dilfer was decked on a blitz by cornerback Toi Cook. The hit forced a fumble and Carolina defensive end Shawn King picked it up and ran 12 yards for a touchdown.

That put the Panthers ahead 10-0, and they were never threatened after that.

Any chance Tampa Bay (4-9) had of making a comeback ended with 8:32 remaining in the third period when cornerback Eric Davis intercepted Dilfer and returned it 39 yards to the Bucs 15. A face-mask penalty gave Carolina first-and-goal at the 10.

Three plays later, fullback Howard Griffith bulled in for a 17-0 lead.

He dedicated the score to his 10-week-old son, Howard II, who saw his father play for the first time from the comfort of a luxury suite.

The Panthers' final score came on Johnson's 25-yard run with 3:10 remaining. The run pushed him over 100 yards for the fifth time this season and gave him 919 this season.

Tampa Bay started its final drive on its 20 and quickly sprinted downfield against a Panthers defensive lineup sprinkled with backups. Rhett gained 16 and 10 yards on the first two plays, then Dilfer threw for 29 yards to move the ball to the Carolina 25.

The Bucs called three timeouts in the final 39 seconds as they continued to drive to the Panthers 2.

Nose tackle Greg Kragen said the Panthers' defense was irritated by the timeouts and determined to prevent the Bucs from scoring.

Once the shutout was secure, Carolina started pointing toward the 49ers, who take a 9-3 record into tonight's game at Atlanta.

The Panthers will have a chance next week in San Francisco to sweep their two games with the 49ers this season and move into position to win the NFC West.

Though the 49ers will be favored, Greene vowed the Panthers' won't be ``overwhelmed.''

``We're thrilled to go there with the record we have and to have so much on the line,'' said Kragen. ``This is going to be one of those weeks where you can't wait to get to work.''

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