Buccaneers 31, Panthers 16

As long as Tampa Bay keeps winning, Raheem Morris doesn’t care
how others feel about how the surprising Buccaneers stack up
against the rest of the NFC.

The NFL’s youngest team has already doubled its win total from
last season, impressing their coach with the type of resilience
that’s normally associated with more experienced teams.

Rebounding from a tough loss to Atlanta that knocked them out of
first place in the NFC South, the Bucs (6-3) beat the Carolina
Panthers 31-16 Sunday.

Josh Freeman threw two touchdown passes and rookie LeGarrette
Blount ran for a score before an announced crowd of 44,264 – more
than 20,000 shy of capacity at Raymond James Stadium.

Losing to the Falcons forced Morris to back off his declaration
that Tampa Bay is the best team in the NFC, however the Bucs are
convinced they have what it takes to remain in contention for a
playoff berth.

”This team has done it throughout the season,” Morris said.
”We got beat bad by the Pittsburgh Steelers and we bounced back.
We came out got beat bad by the New Orleans Saints and we bounced
back. It’s no different when you get beat by Atlanta. … You can’t
have any hangovers. This team is too young for hangovers.”

Freeman threw TD passes of 8 yards to Arrelious Benn and 20
yards to Kellen Winslow. Blount rushed for 91 yards and scored on a
17-yard run in the first half, and Cadillac Williams put the game
out of reach with a 45-yard TD burst on third-and-10 late in the
fourth quarter.

Rookie Jimmy Clausen made his fourth start at quarterback for
injury-riddled Carolina (1-8), which got 100 yards rushing on 23
carries from fourth-string running back Mike Goodson.

Josh Vaughan scored on a 2-yard run and John Kasay kicked field
goals of 46, 28 and 48 yards for the Panthers, who also drove to
the Tampa Bay 1 in the closing seconds only to have Clausen denied
the end zone on consecutive quarterback sneaks.

”I thought Jimmy played well enough to give us a chance, and I
think he’ll continue to improve,” Carolina coach John Fox said of
the second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame.

”We knew it was going to be tough sledding. Their quarterback
does an outstanding job,” Fox said. ”They operate pretty smooth
in the passing game, and I thought they did so today as well.”

Tampa Bay started seven rookies, including Benn and fellow
receiver Mike Williams, who also had a productive day. According to
the Bucs, the last time a team started as many as seven rookies in
a game it won, Dallas beat Jacksonville on Nov. 24, 2002.

Freeman, who’s in his second season, completed 18 of 24 passes
for 241 yards and no interceptions. Cadillac Williams gained 16
yards on a third-down screen pass to keep the clinching drive
alive, then broke through an opening on the right side of the line
and raced untouched to the end zone to end any chance for a
Carolina comeback.

Already last in the league in yards gained and points scored,
the Panthers played without injured running backs DeAngelo Williams
and Jonathan Stewart and simply lacked the firepower to keep up
with a Bucs offense that’s become more balanced since the 247-pound
Blount took on a bigger role three weeks ago.

The rookie best known for punching an opposing player after a
game when he was in college at Oregon, carried five times for 73
yards on an 87-yard scoring drive that Tampa Bay covered entirely
on the ground. He broke runs of 12, 24 and 17 yards before
finishing the drive with another 17-yarder that put the Bucs up
14-3 early in the second quarter.

”We came out fast, executed our game plan and did everything we
planned,” Blount said. ”The defense came out and played well
also.”

Although Goodson had some success running the ball for Carolina,
Clausen rarely looked to throw downfield and put pressure on the
Bucs with the passing game.

The rookie’s longest completion was 18 yards until Clausen
completed a 24-yarder up the sideline to Steve Smith to set up the
first of two field goals Kasay kicked in the third quarter to trim
Tampa Bay’s lead to 21-16.

Freeman reduced the suspense, leading a fourth-quarter field
goal drive that Connor Barth finished with a 32-yarder that made it
24-16 with 10 minutes remaining.

Clausen was 16 of 29 passing for 191 yards and no interceptions.
He was sacked twice.

”I thought guys made improvements. The results weren’t quite
what we were looking for,” said Fox, noting that the Panthers are
also coping with injuries.

”When you’re in a close game like that, field goals are not
going win a game for you,” Clausen added. ”When you get down to
the red zone, you need to put seven points on the board.”

Notes: Winslow had six receptions for 65 yards. His TD was his
first of the season. … Mike Williams had four catches for 68
yards and Benn finished with two for 29 yards for Tampa Bay. …
The Panthers were swept by their NFC South rivals for the first
time since 2002, the year the division was formed.