Shutouts are becoming the norm for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Coming off their second straight regular-season shutout, the defending Super Bowl champions will try to continue their dominant play when they face the Carolina Panthers in their home opener.
Tampa Bay had no trouble picking up right where it left off last January, opening the 2003 season with a 17-0 victory at Philadelphia on Monday night in a rematch of last season’s NFC title game.
The Buccaneers opened the defense of their title by proving that they still have the league’s best defense, and enough players on offense to be considered the favorites to repeat.
Tampa Bay finished the 2002 regular season with a 15-0 victory at Chicago, and rolled to playoff victories over San Francisco and Philadelphia before routing Oakland 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII.
The Bucs became the first team since the 1989-90 Washington Redskins to end one season with a shutout and begin the next season with one.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden doesn’t believe his team has accomplished anything yet.
“We have one win. It’s going to take a lot more victories to even qualify for the playoffs, and we respect that,” he said. “We’re going to remain humble and work hard on the practice field to continue to improve our play.”
While the Tampa Bay defense was keeping Donovan McNabb and the Eagles off the scoreboard, the Bucs offense took control of the game in the second half. Brad Johnson was 13-of-14 for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the final 30 minutes and was helped by a pair of spectacular touchdown catches by Joe Jurevicius.
Having passed their first test of the season in the best way possible, Tampa Bay has quickly turned its focus despite facing an inferior opponent.
“We’re 1-0 and we’re moving to the next week,” defensive tackle Anthony McFarland said. “You cannot look behind you in this league and you cannot look ahead. You have to take care of what’s on your plate at that time. Right now, the Panthers are on our plate and they’re a pretty good football team.”
It seems like overconfidence could be the biggest problem facing Gruden’s team. The Tampa Bay coach, however, remembers last season’s home opener, a disappointing overtime loss to New Orleans.
“Certainly our opening game last year at home there were great expectations, people were looking forward to it, and there was a loud thud if you ask me,” Gruden said.
Although it has a long way to go to match Tampa Bay’s success, Carolina believes it can close the gap in the NFC South this season. There’s also a bitter rivalry developing between the teams, which finished last season ranked first and second in the NFL in total defense, respectively.
The Panthers stayed with the Bucs in both meetings last season, losing 12-9 at home and 23-10 in Tampa Bay.
“Nobody remembers the actual score, just whether it was a ‘W’ or ‘L,’ ” Carolina coach John Fox said. “I think there were some things that we did that were effective. Hopefully, we will be able to take advantage of those opportunities.”
Carolina also will be looking to improve to 2-0 following a season-opening 24-23 victory over Jacksonville on Sunday.
After falling behind 17-0, Fox replaced starting quarterback Rodney Peete with Jake Delhomme at the start of the second half. Delhomme energized the team with a pep talk and threw three touchdown passes—the last with 16 seconds to play on fourth-and-11—as Carolina rallied for the win.
“Jake came in and started slinging that thing around—it lifted the offense, the defense, the special teams, all three phases just started clicking,” defensive end Mike Rucker said. “It was exactly what we needed because we were flat and we needed something to spark us before it got out of hand.”
Fox had no choice but to name Delhomme as the starter for Sunday.
“It would have been tough not to start him,” Fox said. “It was very evident that he sparked our offense. He has a passion and energy about him. I think he likes being in that spot. I think his teammates feed off of that and I thought that was evident.”
STANDINGS: Panthers - 1st place (tied), NFC South. Buccaneers - 1st place (tied), NFC South.
PANTHERS LEADERS: Offense - Delhomme, 122 passing yards and 3 passing TDs; Stephen Davis, 111 rushing yards; Steve Smith, 4 receptions and 44 receiving yards; Muhsin Muhammad, Ricky Proehl and Smith, 1 receiving TD. Defense - Reggie Howard and Mike Minter, 6 tackles; Rucker, 3 sacks.
BUCCANEERS LEADERS: Offense - Johnson, 238 passing yards and 2 passing TDs; Michael Pittman, 35 rushing yards; Keyshawn Johnson, 6 receptions and 83 receiving yards; Jurevicius, 2 receiving TDs. Defense - Nate Webster, 5 tackles; Simeon Rice, 1 1/2 sacks; McFarland, 1 interception.
PANTHERS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 122 yards per game (10th in NFL); Passing Offense - 120 ypg (28th); Total Offense - 242 ypg (27th). Rushing Defense - 75 ypg (10th); Passing Defense - 256 ypg (T-26th); Total Defense - 331 ypg (21st).
BUCCANEERS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 90 ypg (19th); Passing Offense - 238 ypg (13th); Total Offense - 328 ypg (13th). Rushing Defense - 121 ypg (22nd); Passing Defense - 124 ypg (6th); Total Defense - 245 ypg (7th).
LAST MEETING: Nov. 17, 2002; Buccaneers, 23-10. At Tampa, Fla., Johnson completed 22 of 40 passes for 253 yards and two TDs for the Bucs.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Panthers - RB Davis rushed for 141 yards in his last game against Tampa Bay with Washington on Oct. 1, 2000. … Carolina leads the NFL with a 38.6 average drive start on kickoffs. … DE Rucker is tied for the league lead with three sacks. Buccaneers - Tampa Bay is 24-8 at home since 1999, tied for third-best in the NFL during that span. … DE Rice has four sacks in his last two games against Carolina. … K Martin Gramatica converted all seven field-goal attempts against Carolina last season, including two from 50 yards or more.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Panthers - 0-0 on the road; Buccaneers - 0-0 at home.
INJURIES: Panthers - OUT: LB Mike Caldwell (knee). PROBABLE: LB Dan Morgan (hamstring). Buccaneers - OUT: LB Shelton Quarles (forearm/elbow). QUESTIONABLE: RB Darian Barnes (knee). PROBABLE: DE Greg Spires (groin).