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A switch Bucs can relate to

Published Aug. 27, 2005

Oh, so this is how Jamie Lee Curtis felt.

One Friday, she was on top of the world, and everything was about her, and nothing would dare to go wrong. Then something freaky happened, and she found herself in someone else's body, trying to figure out what in the name of Jake Delhomme had gone wrong. Turns out, same thing happened to the Bucs.

You know, yesterday's Panthers.

A year ago, it was the Bucs who were the champions of the NFC, the conquerors of Philadelphia and the scourge of the NFC South. The Carolina Panthers, meanwhile, were a 7-9 team that talked bigger than it walked.

Then something happened, and whammo, just like that, the teams swapped realities.

And suddenly, Tampa Bay was merely a team that was Carolina in its mind.

"I wish it was that simple," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "I wish all we had to do was get an amulet or something and things would go back to the rightful way they should be."

Instead, the Bucs are in their final week as the defending Super Bowl champions. Most of us figured they would come a little closer to defending their title. Most of them, too.

It's a frustrating thing, watching two other teams fight for the crown on your head. It reopens wounds, refreshes disappointments and reminds players of how close success is to disappointment.

"It's sickening," safety John Lynch said. "Carolina? Aarrrggh."

"The line between winning and losing," nose tackle Booger McFarland says, "is like the smallest line on the ruler."

Can you imagine, for instance, how it felt for a Bucs player to watch the rival Panthers go to Philadelphia and do, pretty much, exactly what the Bucs accomplished a year ago?

If the Panthers are not the Bucs' fiercest new rival, they certainly are the loudest. Consider Brentson Buckner proclaiming Carolina's front four to be better than Tampa Bay's, consider Simeon Rice guaranteeing a victory, consider even the kickers getting into the debate. This season, even a fan in the stands found himself with a microphone, calling out Tampa Bay.

How close is success and failure? Consider the Bucs and the Panthers. This season, Carolina was 7-0 in games decided by three points or fewer; Tampa Bay was 0-5.

"You have to have the ultimate respect for them for that," Lynch said. "They did what we didn't do. They won close games."

Consider, in particular, the head-to-head matchups. Carolina won the first meeting in overtime after the Bucs had an extra point blocked with no time on the clock in regulation. The Panthers won the second game with an 80-yard march with no timeouts.

Reverse those two results, and both teams finish the season 9-7, and the Bucs win the tiebreaker.

"That's what hurts," linebacker Shelton Quarles said. "We were that close."

Lynch chafes a bit at the constant comparisons between this season's Panthers and last season's Bucs. Two years ago, the Panthers were 1-15, while the Bucs had been a contender with a dominating defense for years.

"I get tired of people saying they're like us, that they won with the same kind of defense," Lynch said. "The Panthers gave up a ton of yards this year. They've got a good front four, but I'd still take ours. That's the thing that hurts. We still think we're better."

In hindsight, the Panthers' playoff run _ beating Dallas, St. Louis and Philadelphia _ doesn't seem out of reach, either. The Cowboys didn't score on the Bucs this season. Tampa Bay always has played well against the Rams. And the Bucs won last season's NFC title game and this season's opener over the Eagles.

"If we had gotten to the playoffs, I would have liked our chances," Barber said. "We kept saying we just wanted to get into the tournament."

Of course, it should be said that every team on the outside wants to get in. There is a reason, however, they don't get the chance.

"I don't like ifs," McFarland said. "Ifs will lead you down the wrong road. In the NFL, you get what you deserve. We didn't deserve to be there."

Said Lynch: "We can learn from both of these teams. They really are excellent at the concept of being a team, putting the team ahead of individuals, that sort of thing."

Here's a prediction: Quarles picks dull.

"It's going to be one of the most boring Super Bowls," he said. "I don't even know if I'll watch."

Receiver Keenan McCardell said he probably will tune in, but he isn't sure. McFarland picks the Panthers. Barber picks the Patriots. Lynch picks the Patriots, but warns he's been wrong about the Panthers all along.

It might surprise you to hear that not all the Bucs mind seeing the Panthers in the Super Bowl.

"To tell you the truth, as much as I don't like those guys, I felt good for them," Barber said. "I'd rather see them there than Philadelphia. That's probably some deep-seated psychological problem I've got. This rivalry is still kind of young. Our rivalry with Philly is much more intense."

"I don't have any discomfort with them being there," McFarland said. "They did what you have to do to get there. We're disappointed, but that's nothing on them."

On the other hand, it is certain to add flame to next season's games. When the Panthers and Bucs meet, it will be a matchup of the last two NFC title-holders.

"The rivalry is there," McCardell said. "It's going to continue to be there. It's just going to make us work harder."

Which, of course, leads to the next question. How good will the Bucs be next season?

"I think we'll come back," Barber said. "We still have great players. We'll have some losses in free agency, but we'll make some gains, too. We'll be back."

And next season? Maybe the Bucs won't swap back with Carolina.

Considering the two Super Bowl trips in three years, maybe they'll swap with New England.