There could hardly have been a better scenario for the Bucs after WR Antonio Bryant's 52-yard reception put the ball at the Panthers 2 midway through the second quarter. First and goal in the shadows of the goal posts. Coach Jon Gruden made a curious decision to throw on first down, and QB Jeff Garcia threw just beyond TE Alex Smith's reach. On second down, RB Cadillac Williams was stuffed for a half-yard gain. And on third down, Garcia ran frantically, TE Jerramy Stevens couldn't haul in a difficult catch, and the Bucs settled for a 20-yard field goal. "We knew it was going to be a challenge coming in here. We got held on a goal-to-go situation, which disappointed us. But we're still excited to finish the season." The Bucs entered having scored touchdowns just 34 percent of the time in red zone opportunities.
Third and whatever
The Panthers must have a flair for the dramatic. It seems they prefer to wait until third down to finally convert for first downs. This is evidenced in their impressive third-down conversion ratio, converting seven of their first eight third-down attempts. And the Panthers finished 8-for-10 in the game. They did it on the ground, through the air — whatever. Oddly enough, the Bucs have been one of the stoutest defenses on third down. Before Monday, opponents had converted just 33 percent of third downs against Tampa Bay.
More from Cadillac
• The latest chapter in the thrilling story that is Cadillac Williams' comeback was penned Monday night at Bank of America Stadium. At the same venue where the Bucs running back suffered his career-threatening knee injury in September 2007, Williams returned to score his second touchdown of the season on a 4-yard dash behind the right end in the third quarter. "I was excited. This is where my whole career changed," Williams said. "I was excited about the chance to come back and play in this environment. I just wish we could have gotten that win." Williams was of more use to the Bucs on Monday because of his downhill running style, but he finished with just 22 yards on nine carries.
Revived running game
• The Panthers' rushing attack hit a brick wall in the first meeting with the Bucs, gaining just 40 yards on 20 carries Oct. 12 in Tampa. After that matchup, the Panthers had 135.1 yards per game heading into Monday night — fueled by RB DeAngelo Williams (955 yards). Against the Bucs on Monday, the Panthers ran wild, totaling 299 yards on 37 carries. Williams had 19 carries for 186 yards, and rookie Jonathan Stewart finished with 115 yards on 15 carries.
• CB Ronde Barber, the subject of criticism early this season for giving up several big plays, continued his up-and-down campaign. He recorded his third interception of the season, making a nifty, leaping catch on the sideline against Panthers WR Dante Rosario. Carolina challenged, but officials ruled that Barber caught the ball and tucked it away before touching the sideline. But he was later called for two key penalties (illegal contact and defensive holding) that helped sustain Panthers drives. SS Jermaine Phillips added an acrobatic interception of his own in the third quarter, catching a tipped ball while on his back. With that, the Bucs recorded their 19th interception of the season, pulling them into a three-way tie with the Bears and Browns for second in the league. The Ravens lead all teams with 22.
The commish stops by
• NFL commissioner Roger Goodell attended the game and took time to recognize the rare event taking place with two 9-3 teams in the same division playing such a pivotal game late in the season. "It's nice to see two teams playing for the division title," Goodell said. "It doesn't get any better than this." Asked if such a game was part of his vision of parity, Goodell took issue with the choice of words. "We call it competitiveness."
• Bucs running backs had difficulties making catches. Usually sure-handed Warrick Dunn was the biggest offender. He dropped at least three, two in three plays midway through the fourth quarter. Clifton Smith mishandled a would-be screen after being inserted to jump-start the offense. The Bucs wanted to establish the short passing game to the running backs, but they apparently didn't get the memo.
• The Panthers came into the matchup with 13 sacks in their past five games, with DE Julius Peppers logging seven of his 11 in that span. They wasted no time continuing the trend Monday, courtesy of DE Tyler Brayton. He busted through the line on Tampa Bay's second offensive play and threw QB Jeff Garcia for a 7-yard loss. At the end of the first half, CB Richard Marshall added a 6-yard sack of Garcia, followed by another from Peppers and DE Charles Johnson as time expired. The Panthers finished with five sacks, 11/2 for Peppers.
Next up: Ryan Sims
• With starting DT Jovan Haye missing the trip because of a knee injury, the Bucs turned to Ryan Sims, who made his first start as a Buc. Sims has come on lately, gaining an expanded role even before Haye was injured last week against the Saints. Sims was active in the trenches but struggled to provide a consistent push. In some cases, his job was complicated because he faced double teams.