It had all the makings of a disaster. Of historical proportions.
But after losing two leads, not to mention starting quarterback Trent Dilfer to a mild concussion, the Tampa Bay Bucs at least didn't lose their nerve in the fourth quarter Sunday, settling for a disaster averted in their 20-13 win over the expansion Carolina Panthers.
The Bucs escaped Clemson's Memorial Stadium with their third win in five games, and kept a crowd of 50,076 from taking in the first regular-season victory in Carolina franchise history. Boil it down, and Tampa Bay's 19-year head start in the NFL expansion game was worth seven points.
"It feels good to get out of Death Valley alive," said Bucs defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, invoking the stadium's nickname. "Even when we thought we had them on the run, they were out there joking around and laughing, like they didn't have a care in the world. They had nothing to lose."
The Bucs' escape was built around a solid relief job by backup quarterback Casey Weldon (9-of-20 for 156 yards and the game-winning 1-yard fourth-quarter touchdown plunge) and a Tampa Bay defense that forced four Panthers turnovers (three fumbles and one interception), two in the fourth quarter.
All four Carolina turnovers came inside the Bucs' 40, with Tampa Bay staving off trouble by logging two fumble recoveries inside its red zone (at the 1 and 14).
"You've got to drop that word "expansion,' " said Bucs LB Hardy Nickerson, asked about Tampa Bay's 0-4 opponent.
"Let's just call it a team in its first year. Don't say expansion. Expansion leads everyone to believe this team should just get wiped out by the No. 1 high school team in the nation. This was a very good team we played today."
At 3-2, Tampa Bay is on a two-game winning streak and alone in second place in the NFC Central, trailing Green Bay by a half game. The Packers and the rest of the division had a bye. It is the first time since 1992, when the Bucs also started 3-2, that Tampa Bay has had a winning record this late in the season.
All week, the Bucs grappled with the same problem existing NFL teams always have when facing an expansion team: your basic no-win situation. But there are no-win situations, and then there are no-win situations, as Tampa Bay nearly found out.
"I'm glad we're (getting) out of town right now," said Bucs coach Sam Wyche. "We want to get on the bus and get out before they have reviews."
The Bucs' defense, however, was not spared a scathing post-game review by Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Rusty Tillman. Tillman was pushed beyond irritation by a Bucs performance that included the following Carolina offensive highlights:
Kerry Collins' 18-of-32, 234-yard, no-sack, one-touchdown, one-interception day in his first NFL start.
Running back Derrick Moore's 21-carry, 123-yard rushing day, which included a second-quarter 53-yard touchdown run. Moore entered the game with 521 career yards in his four NFL seasons.
The overall execution of a Carolina offense that converted 9 of 15 (60 percent) third-down situations, outgained Tampa Bay 393 to 310 in net yards, 159-58 in rushing yards, and held about a 12-minute edge in time of possession (35:53 to 24:07).
"We s----- on defense today," Tillman said. "This was the worst damn game that I think I've ever been involved with (on defense). The only thing that saved our a-- today was we took the ball away four times. What happened to us today is totally embarrassing."
The Bucs' bend-but-don't-break defense did make the plays when it counted. Nickerson and defensive tackle Santana Dotson forced first-half fumbles (recovered by Nickerson and strong safety Barney Bussey), and free safety John Booty and right defensive end Eric Curry came up with a fourth-quarter interception and fumble recovery, respectively.
Booty's interception of Collins at the Bucs' 8 was merely his second huge play of the game. In the second quarter, his 48-yard reception on a fake-punt pass from Reggie Roby set up Michael Husted's 25-yard field goal, giving Tampa Bay a 10-7 lead.
On the play, a fourth and 8 from the Bucs' 40, Roby barely got the ball to Booty, who raced to the Panthers' 12. It was the first pass of Roby's 13-year career.
"(Roby) wasn't proud of it," joked Booty, who entered the lineup in the third quarter when starting free safety Thomas Everett strained a knee. "He needs to go to quarterback school."
Weldon basically did. Before Sunday, the former FSU standout had never played in a game with the outcome truly in doubt. In his four NFL seasons, his six-game totals read 17 completions in 27 attempts, for 157 yards and one interception.
But after Dilfer exited 3-of-12 for 55 yards, suffering a mild concussion on a second-quarter sack by Carolina linebacker Carlton Bailey and defensive end Mike Fox, Weldon found himself thrust into a game the Bucs had to win.
Despite looking wild high himself, he produced a seven-play, 57-yard field goal drive to end the first half, with Husted converted a 27-yarder to make it 13-7 at the gun. The key play was a 40-yard reception by receiver Horace Copeland.
"Those three points that we got before the end of the half, they were huge for me," Weldon said. "They really settled me down."
After Carolina tied it at 13 on a 5-yard pass to tight end Pete Metzelaars with 8:18 to go in the third, missing the PAT, Weldon helped the Bucs regain the lead for good when he capped an 11-play, 64-yard drive with a 1-yard quarterback sneak _ his first NFL touchdown _ on the opening play of the fourth quarter. A 33-yard pass to tight end Jackie Harris (five catches for a game-high 108 yards) on third-and-16 set up the score.
"It's a great feeling," Weldon said. "This is the first real chance I've been given. I feel like I made the most of it. It was a good win. It could have been a little more picture-perfect, I guess. But I had some big plays."
Dilfer, so hazy he barely could remember playing in the first half, is expected to return next week.