By MIKE CRANSTON
The Associated Press
Monday, November 13, 2006; 4:53 PM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- While they have only been in the same division for five seasons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers sure have a lot of stories to tell.
The rivalry has produced last-second finishes, the first blocked extra point to force overtime in NFL history and a war of words _ between a kicker and a punter.
Even the cheerleaders aren't safe when these two teams meet.
"There are different rivals that we have in our division," Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker said. "Atlanta is right down the road, your next door neighbor type rivalry. The score doesn't always reflect that rivalry.
"But then you go down to Tampa where it does come down to the last second. Whether it's a blocked field goal or them kicking a field goal or something going on, it's always there."
The Panthers and Buccaneers were thrown together in the NFC South when the NFL realigned in 2002. And it didn't take long for the teams to dislike each other.
In their first division game in 2002, Martin Gramatica kicked a 47-yard field goal with 5 seconds left to give the Bucs a 12-9 win.
Before their second meeting, Panthers punter Todd Sauerbrun mocked the way Gramatica celebrated after made field goals. Then after the Bucs beat Carolina 23-10, Sauerbrun claimed Gramatica's younger brother taunted him as he left the field.
"That kid is as big an idiot as his brother," Sauerbrun said.
Gramatica responded by taking at shot at Sauerbrun.
"One hundred percent of the people that know him don't like him," Gramatica said.
Tampa Bay went on to win the Super Bowl that season, so when the teams meet in for the first time in 2003, the Panthers wanted to show they could compete.
Keenan McCardell's 6-yard touchdown catch for Tampa Bay tied the game, and the Bucs were just a routine extra point away from another win over Carolina.
But Kris Jenkins blocked Gramatica's kick, the first time that had ever happened on the final play to force overtime, and Gramatica's first missed PAT in his career. The Panthers won in overtime, and many players say it was the key moment in a season that ended with a loss to New England in the Super Bowl.
"That kind of started that rivalry right there," Rucker said. "Now you don't know if it's in the back of their head, but we know we're capable of doing it at any time. It gave us a good start."
The second meeting was also a thriller, as Jake Delhomme threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith with 1:06 left to give Carolina 27-24 win.
Gramatica's bad luck against the Panthers continued the following season, when he missed three field goals, including a 37-yarder with 1:48 left, that would've snapped a 14-all tie.
Delhomme then led the Panthers on another game-winning scoring drive, capped by his 40-yard touchdown pass to Keary Colbert with 20 seconds left.
"I don't know how many times Jake Delhomme has beat us in the last seconds," Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. "I think three or four times. Tell Jake, I really appreciate that."
The Panthers and Buccaneers split two meetings last season, when both went 11-5. But perhaps the most memorable moment was the night before the game in Tampa. Two Panthers cheerleaders who had made the trip were accused of having sex in a bathroom stall in a nightclub, then got into a fight with bar patrons.
While the cheerleaders denied having sex, the story exploded and both were fired by the Panthers.
The focus shifted back to the field in the first meeting this season, when Bucs quarterback Chris Simms suffered a ruptured spleen sometime during the game. Somehow he continued to play, before undergoing emergency surgery that night.
"We thought it might be a bruised rib or something," said rookie Bruce Gradkowski, who has taken over for Simms. "He stuck it out. He showed great courage and toughness and that's a credit to him."
As usual, that game came down to the end. Kasay kicked the game-winning field goal with 2 seconds left and become the first kicker to make four field goals of 46 or more yards in the same game.
"I can't stand that guy, John Kasay" Gruden joked, while also directing his ire at Delhomme. "Every time I see those guys at pregame, I have a hard time being myself."
The Panthers have won six of the past seven meetings and led the series 7-5 before Monday's game.
"I think the NFC South has taken shape now and obviously, the Panthers are really talented," Gruden said. "It's a great rivalry."