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D plays up to its image

Simeon Rice has a way with words, and quarterbacks.

"I think we're playing classic right now," the Bucs right end said of another magnificent defensive effort in Sunday's 23-10 victory over the Panthers at Raymond James Stadium.

It was a clash of Tampa Bay's top-ranked defense and Carolina's third-ranked unit. Only one unit lived up to its billing.

Tied at 10 entering the second half, what had been a defensive struggle turned into an offensive one for the Panthers. The Bucs held them to 93 yards in the second half and 24 in the third quarter as Carolina converted four third downs total. Tampa Bay came up with three interceptions and a fumble recovery, two of which led to 10 second-half points.

"The front four is the catalyst of this defense," said cornerback Brian Kelly, who had his fourth interception of the season. "As long as they're hunting, it's a lot easier for the secondary to sit back there and lick our chops."

Here is how the Panthers offense fared in that futile second half: punt, punt, fumble, interception, punt, interception, downs. Downs, as in fourth down, when reserve defensive tackle Ellis Wyms came up with the Bucs' fourth sack of Rodney Peete on fourth and 4 with 56 seconds left, keeping the Panthers out of the end zone and putting an exclamation point on another fine defensive outing.

"They still got a good (defense), but we're great, and we're on our way," said Rice, who had two sacks and leads the team with 9.5. "We're playing real classic now. We're feeding off the crowd, playing together, the offense is putting up points. What could be better?"

Not much, after Tampa Bay improved to a franchise-best 8-2 despite falling behind 7-0 and 10-7.

Some Bucs thought the defense just needed time to get warmed up coming off the bye week. It certainly got hot after the Panthers' nine-play, 70-yard scoring drive with 6:15 left in the first quarter, when wideout Steve Smith hauled in a 20-yard Peete pass in front of safety John Lynch.

"They just caught us, man," Kelly said. "We came out flat after the bye week a little bit; we had to get back into the groove."

Said Rice: "It commanded our attention. But we didn't get rattled, we didn't panic. We're a veteran team. We understand the situation. We just locked and loaded. We tightened the screws up.

"We challenged ourselves to play at a higher level and we knocked them out."

Tampa Bay entered tied for second in the league in turnover margin and was plus-2 Sunday.

Rice got the ball rolling, literally, in the third quarter, slapping the ball out of Peete's hands. Warren Sapp recovered the fumble at the Carolina 45.

The Bucs punted, but on the Panthers' third play of the drive came the pass nickel back Dwight Smith knew would come. Days of video work prepared him to intercept the backside slant at the opposing 21 with 2:28 left in the third and he returned it to the 19. Two plays and a 3-yard loss later, Keenan McCardell went 22 yards for the touchdown. Tampa Bay was on top 17-10 and never looked back.

The redemption kept on coming. After Martin Gramatica's 32-yard field goal pushed the lead to 20-10, Lynch came up with his third interception of the season at the Carolina 31 with 4:02 left. That led to another Gramatica field goal and a 23-10 lead.

"The thing about our defense is, we want to be special," Smith said. "Even though we won (against Minnesota) we took that hard because the yards and the points are more than we are used to giving up. So it feels good to come back and have a strong showing and get ready for Brett Favre and Green Bay next week."

Picked off

With three interceptions and one fumble recovery Sunday, the Bucs are first in the NFL in interceptions and second in takeaways.


Tampa Bay 21 5 26

Green Bay 18 14 32

Baltimore 16 2 18

Pittsburgh 15 8 23

Arizona 13 5 18

Miami 13 5 18

San Diego 12 7 19

San Francisco12 6 18

Oakland 11 7 18

St. Louis 11 6 17

Carolina 11 6 17