Bryant goes deep
The Bucs got down to business again four minutes into the second quarter, following cornerback Ronde Barber's sideline interception. Starting from his 23, Jeff Garcia took seven plays to drive the Bucs to a first down at their 47. Halfback Cadillac Williams was held for a 1-yard loss on first down. But a play later, Antonio Bryant bolted down the left sideline, leaving cornerbacks Richard Marshall and Ken Lucas in the dust. Garcia's pass hit Bryant in stride, and despite getting pushed, the receiver kept his balance and lunged forward, getting ruled out of bounds at the 2. The Bucs failed to find the end zone, but the dazzling connection set up Matt Bryant's 20-yard field goal to tie it at 3 with 6:37 left in the half. The 52-yard hookup was the longest pass play for the Bucs this season. "I've never see a guy play like that," coach Jon Gruden said of Bryant, who finished with nine catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns, the second a diving, left-handed grab in the end zone. "He was dominant tonight. Great catches. He's a big-time talent. I'm happy for him. Unfortunately, it went down as a loss."
Smith's turn in the spotlight
While Antonio Bryant was busy creating aerial fireworks, Carolina's pass-catching sensation Steve Smith was putting on quite a show of his own. He constantly found ways to get open in clutch situations. Case in point: Midway through the third quarter, with the score tied at 10, quarterback Jake Delhomme engineered a drive from his 27 to the Bucs 38 in five plays. On first down, the speedy, sure-handed Smith sprinted toward the left corner of the end zone all alone and made the 38-yard catch look effortless. The play put the Panthers back on top 17-10 with 8:28 left in the quarter, with Smith on his way to a 117-yard receiving game.
Off the post
After a lackluster three-and-out opening series, the Bucs embarked on a promising drive on their second possession. They had fallen behind 3-0 on a 33-yard field goal by John Kasay on Carolina's first drive of the game. But quarterback Jeff Garcia guided his offense methodically from its 26 to the Panthers' 32 on 13 plays. On third and 12 from there, his 10-yard completion to wide receiver Antonio Bryant, slanting over the middle, fell just short of the first down. So on fourth and 2 from the 22, kicker Matt Bryant trotted into the game with the field goal a foregone conclusion. Bryant, who had connected on 28 of his 32 attempts this season, had plenty of distance, but the ball began to float to the left in the breeze, striking the left upright and bouncing harmlessly to the turf. Bryant's rare errant kick left the Bucs empty-handed on their impressive 14-play drive as the first quarter ended. "It was going straight down the middle," Bryant said. "Then all of a sudden, it just went to the left. It was blowing right to left. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. That time, I got a little unlucky."