TAMPA — There have been dustups. There have been brutal, season-ending hits, crushing defeats and euphoric victories, too.
So much has transpired between the Bucs and Panthers, it's practically inarguable that they are each other's fiercest, most despised rivals.
"It would have to be just because of some of the games we've played with them, especially for the guys who have been here for a while," Bucs third-year offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood said. "Me, I've pretty much got it down that we don't really like them and they don't really like us."
Well, here's some news for Trueblood and the Bucs: They're going to find this version of the Panthers even less likable.
The 2008 club is bent on taking back the NFC South, which it last won in 2005, and there's reason to believe it could be a successful endeavor.
The Panthers are 4-1 and in first place in the division. They visit Raymond James Stadium on Sunday looking to take a two-game lead over the Bucs while attempting to further prove they are not the team that spent nearly all of 2007 out of contention.
It's only Week 6, yet this is a game that feels important.
"That's okay," Trueblood said. "It's more fun that way."
So what is it about these Panthers?
For one, they have gotten back to their stingy, ferocious ways. With the league's fourth-ranked defense, Carolina hasn't allowed a touchdown in nine quarters and has shut out opponents in its past six. The Panthers blanked Kansas City on Sunday, and Atlanta managed just a trio of first-half field goals in the previous game.
Defensive end Julius Peppers, with a career-low 21/2 sacks in 2007, looks rejuvenated after moving to the right side in place of the retired Mike Rucker. Peppers, in his seventh season, has three sacks, and his unavoidable presence against the run and pass has left opponents searching for solutions.
"I think everybody's entitled to a bad year," Carolina coach John Fox said.
Regarding the move to the right side, he added, "He has a natural left-handed stance, so … I think he feels a little more natural there."
The position switch means Peppers, 28, long a Bucs nemesis (just ask ex-offensive lineman Kenyatta Walker), will be matched against an unfamiliar opponent, left tackle Donald Penn.
"I guess he's feeling really comfortable on that side," Penn said of the All-Pro, "because he's playing like he did when he first came into the league."
Jon Beason, a University of Miami product in his second season, has been the backbone of the defense at middle linebacker and made the retired Dan Morgan a distant memory.
Memories of Jake Delhomme had faded for Fox because, he said, the 33-year-old quarterback had missed so much time with injuries. But Delhomme is back after elbow surgery sidelined him for most of 2007.
"It's all about him," Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "He's a great leader, like (the Saints') Drew Brees. He runs that whole football team. He's never gotten the accolades like a lot of guys do, but the guy just wins football games."
Especially in Tampa, where the Bucs have dropped five consecutive games against Carolina. The Panthers have won eight of the past 10 overall.
This game is shaping up to be vintage Panthers-Bucs, and the rest of the division is taking shape, too. Only the Saints (2-3) are below .500, and even Atlanta looks as though it will have plenty to say about the final outcome.
Get ready for a rough ride in the South.
"So many people wrote off Atlanta before the season, but they have a heck of a running back (Michael Turner), a solid defense and a young quarterback (Matt Ryan) that's very, very good," Delhomme said. "We all know how good the Saints are. They've just had a ton of injuries. And Tampa, they had a game they almost won last week in Denver and won at Chicago (last month).
"You have to come ready to play."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]