CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—Tired of getting beaten over and over again by a bitter rival, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did everything possible to end the streak.
They were physical. Used tough defense. Focused on tackling. Ran the ball right up the gut.
Everything the Carolina Panthers had done to them in five straight losses.
This time the Bucs came out on top, riding Carnell “Cadillac” Williams in a 20-10 victory over the Panthers on Sunday to pull into a tie with Carolina for first place in the NFC South.
“We talk about outplaying our opponents’ defense every week and the past five times we played these guys we definitely haven’t done that,” said Ronde Barber, who became the first NFL cornerback to notch 20 sacks and 20 interceptions with one of each against Carolina.
“Without a doubt, we can say we did that this time.”
Williams ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns to put the Bucs back in first place with a rare win over a quality opponent.
“I think this kind of showed everybody that we’re for real,” Williams said. “We’re just looking for a chance.”
Both Tampa Bay (9-4) and Carolina (9-4) have NFC South rivals Atlanta and New Orleans remaining, and the Falcons (7-5) are 1 1/2 games out of the lead heading into Monday night’s game against the Saints.
“We put ourselves in a situation where we’ve got to work for three more weeks,” Carolina safety Mike Minter said. “We’ve got to go out and take care of these next three weeks like its the playoffs.”
Had the Panthers played that way against the Bucs, they’d have control of the division.
Instead, Tampa Bay used stingy defense to hold Carolina to 276 yards and end a five-game losing streak that had gotten under coach Jon Gruden’s skin.
“We lost five in a row—but now they’ve got a one-game losing streak,” Gruden said. “You can go ask them about that streak.”
Williams, finding running room that was nonexistent in Carolina’s 34-14 victory earlier this season, pounded his way through the Panthers defense. Held to just 29 yards in the first meeting with Carolina, Williams had almost bettered that by the end of the first quarter.
He dragged defenders with him every time he touched the ball, proving almost impossible to hold to a short gain.
Then he exploited the absence of defensive end Mike Rucker (sprained ankle) by bursting through the right side of Carolina’s line for an 11-yard touchdown to put Tampa Bay up 7-0 in the first quarter.
“I know Mike Rucker didn’t play, I know that hurts their front,” Gruden said. “But it’s a credit to Cadillac Williams. He made some great cuts.”
Williams’ first score gave the Bucs a large enough advantage to protect, but Tampa Bay added Matt Bryant’s two field goals to go up 13-0 early in the third quarter.
Carolina’s offense stalled for the first time in weeks.
Jake Delhomme’s passing was spotty, and Carolina coach John Fox’s determination to establish the run frustrated the crowd, which booed loudly after yet another three-down series of go-nowhere runs with DeShaun Foster. He was held to 46 yards rushing in his first start of the season.
Carolina turned to Steve Smith to spark a rally, with Delhomme hitting him for a 60-yard gain on the Panthers’ first play of the second half. But the drive fizzled three plays later, and Carolina settled for a 39-yard field goal from Kasay to get on the board.
Still, it put some life in the Panthers. They stopped the Bucs on the next series, and Smith returned the ensuing punt 44 yards to put them in scoring range.
But Delhomme made his biggest error of the game, ignoring a wide-open Smith in favor of heavily covered Ricky Proehl, and was intercepted by Ronde Barber to end the threat.
“I’m surprised Jake threw that ball because I was right on his hip,” Barber said.
The turnover set the Bucs up to ride the game out behind Williams, who tiptoed his way into the end zone on a 10-yard touchdown that put Tampa Bay up 20-3.
Fans started filing out with 5:39 to play knowing Carolina’s grasp on the NFC South lead had slipped away.
“They came in and beat us, plain and simple,” Delhomme said. “They played better than us.”
Notes:@ Williams’ first score was the first touchdown scored against Carolina in 11 quarters. … Tampa Bay defensive tackle Anthony McFarland left in the first half with a strained hamstring and did not return. … The Bucs converted 10-of-17 third downs, compared to just 2-of-11 for Carolina. … Stephen Davis, who was replaced by Foster in the starting lineup, had four carries for 23 yards.