Gut check time came Monday night for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They were blasted in the middle of the soft underbelly of their defense by Carolina's offensive line. They were hit in the solar plexus by running backs DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart, who combined to rush for 301 yards and four touchdowns. The result was hard to stomach — a convincing 38-23 loss to the Panthers on Monday Night Football. "It is embarrassing," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "You don't get many opportunities to have that national audience. This is by far our worst game of the year. We know we're not that team we showed out there tonight. But it is what it is. We did it in front of national TV. Now we've got to regroup with one less day and go play Atlanta." The victory gave the Panthers (10-3) sole possession of first place in the NFC South, where they control their destiny and could grab the No. 1 seed in the conference by winning their three remaining games.
Tampa Bay (9-4), which had a four-game winning streak end, doesn't have much time to rebound. The Bucs play at Atlanta (8-5) Sunday and are now fighting for their playoff lives.
The Bucs entered with the NFL's fourth overall defense, having allowed just one rushing touchdown and one 100-yard rusher all season.
But they were no match for the Panthers' dynamic duo of Williams and Stewart, who both eclipsed the century rushing mark in the same game.
Williams had 19 carries for 186 yards and two touchdowns. Stewart rolled up 115 yards and a pair of scores.
By the end of the game, it was embarrassing. The Panthers scored on four plays. The next time, they scored on three plays.
The Panthers put the game away in the fourth, driving 72 yards and 90 yards capped by TD runs by Stewart and Williams. Carolina rolled up 464 yards.
"To put it bluntly, they ran the ball all over us," cornerback Ronde Barber said of the Panthers, who set a team record for yards rushing (299) "They probably had five plays. They probably ran five different plays. The same play over and over and over again. They out-physicalled us. We got beat at the point of attack. We had some tough tackles on the corners. Early in the game, we just weren't tackling, and it carried over.
The Bucs were playing without starting defensive tackle Jovan Haye. But his replacement, Ryan Sims, was not the only culprit.
"We think we're a much better team than we showed," Barber said. "But we knew this was going to be a physical game. There's no doubt this is a competitive division. Just give them credit. Hopefully, we'll see them again."
The loss spoiled a huge night by Bucs receiver Antonio Bryant, who had nine catches for a career-high 200 yards and two touchdowns, including a dazzling one-handed grab to cut the lead to eight with 2:29 left.
It was a coming-out party for Bryant, who turned in the second-best receiving game in club history. After dustups with Bill Parcells in Dallas and Mike Nolan in San Francisco, Bryant spent last season on the couch.
But the Bucs gave him a chance to resurrect his career and he has made the most of it. He entered the game 26th in the league in receiving yards but had a career game Monday night.
Time after time, he got behind the defense. He had a 52-yard reception to set up the Bucs' first score, a 20-yard field goal by Matt Bryant.
He had a 50-yard touchdown reception to tie it at 10, turning around cornerback Ken Lucas. His 38-yard reception set up Cadillac Williams' 4-yard touchdown run to tie it again at 17.
The Bucs had been slow starters on the road, falling behind by 21 at Kansas City and 17 at Detroit. The deficit wasn't as large against the Panthers, but Monday night was no exception.
It was a team effort. Normally reliable Matt Bryant clanged a 40-yard field goal off the right upright, his first miss of the season from that distance or closer. He also had an extra point blocked by Julius Peppers.
The offensive line allowed five sacks. Mostly, the defense tackled like matadors.
The only thing that kept the Bucs in the game was erratic play by Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme and the combination of Garcia-to-Bryant.
For some reason, Delhomme felt compelled to occasionally pass, usually with bad results.
He was intercepted by Barber to end one drive in the first half. And despite a 28-yard run by Williams to start the second half, Delhomme was picked by Jermaine Phillips.
That set up Garcia's 50-yard touchdown pass to Bryant, who beat Lucas on a double-move. Garcia finished 24-of-38 for 321 yards with two touchdowns.
"We just didn't have an answer for their offense. It is uncharacteristic, and I'm still confident that our defense can rebound from this and finish the season strong," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said.