TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—The Carolina Panthers are one step closer to overcoming a horrendous start and making NFL history.
No team has ever lost seven of its first eight games and rallied to make the playoffs, but the defending NFC champions have a chance after beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 37-20 Sunday to keep pace with New Orleans for a wild-card berth.
The Panthers (7-8) won for the sixth time in seven games and can earn the last wild-card spot in the weak NFC by beating the Saints (7-8) at home next Sunday.
“We’ve given ourselves another opportunity next week. We play another division foe at our place and we’ll see how it all settles,” Carolina coach John Fox said.
“These guys have believed all year that it isn’t where you start but where you finish, and we have one more step to get into the next tournament.”
Jake Delhomme threw for 214 yards and four touchdowns, two of them to Muhsin Muhammad, who had his seventh 100-yard game and set single-season Carolina records for yards receiving (1,310) and TD catches (14).
Four of the six games the Panthers and Bucs have played against each other since the NFC South was formed in 2002 have been decided by seven points or less, including a 21-14 Carolina victory on Nov. 28.
But Delhomme and an opportunistic defense made sure the Panthers’ fourth straight win in the series wouldn’t come down to the wire.
Defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead’s interception and 17-yard return for a touchdown with just under 5 minutes remaining wiped out any hope for a Tampa Bay comeback and ensured the Panthers would bounce back from a disappointing 34-31 overtime loss at Atlanta the previous week.
“That’s just how we’ve fought all season, characteristic of this ballclub in that we just keep fighting,” Muhammad said.
Delhomme threw TD passes of 15 and 6 yards to Muhammad and the Panthers blocked a punt to set up a field goal as the first half expired to build a 17-7 lead. Carolina marched 70 yards after the second half kickoff to go up 24-7 on Delhomme’s 4-yard TD throw to Keary Colbert.
The Bucs (5-10) lost for the third straight time since routing the NFC South champion Falcons 27-0 in a game they hoped would be a springboard for a strong stretch run that would carry them to the playoffs after an 0-4 start.
Instead, Tampa Bay is assured its worst finish since 1996. A defeat at Arizona in the season finale would give the Bucs 11 losses for the first time since 1993.
“You can’t take anything from them. They were 1-7, and they fought back. You’ve got to pat those guys on the back because they’ve been doing some commendable stuff,” Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly said.
“We were in a similar position being down 0-4. I envy some of the things they’re doing over there right now.”
Delhomme completed 19 of 24 passes and the Panthers didn’t have any turnovers. Meanwhile, Nick Goings continued to impress with his fifth 100-yard game, finishing with 127 yards on 33 carries.
Taking up where he left off in a 10-catch, 135-yard performance the previous week against Atlanta, Muhammad had eight receptions for 115 yards. His one-handed catch over Kelly gave the Panthers a 7-0 lead, his second TD catch made it 14-0 and he gained 20 yards on a catch to set up John Kasay’s 26-yard field goal on the last play on the first half.
“I’ve got extreme confidence in Moose, and I’m going to keep on feeding him,” Delhomme said.
Tampa Bay’s Brian Griese tossed three touchdown passes, but also threw two interceptions and lost a midfield fumble that led to Delhomme’s fourth TD pass and a 30-14 Carolina lead early in the fourth quarter.
Michael Clayton scored on receptions of 22 and 6 yards for Tampa Bay.
Griese was 30-of-41 for 321 yards.
“It’s tough. You give everything you have as a football player and it isn’t enough. You have to learn from it and stay strong,” Griese said.
The Bucs are 12-19 since winning the Super Bowl two years ago, and Sunday’s loss finished a week in which defensive end Simeon Rice made critical comments about coach Jon Gruden, saying the Bucs suffer from a lack of discipline.
Gruden vowed that the team will finish with a strong effort at Arizona.
“I don’t like the feeling of being knocked on my you know what,” Gruden said. “I don’t think our players do (either).”
Clayton has six TD receptions, a Tampa Bay rookie record. … Rice, who began the day tied for the NFC lead in sacks with 12, had zero tackles. … The Panthers have forced 29 turnovers in their last seven games, compared to nine during their 1-7 start.