Panthers 34, Buccaneers 14

The Carolina Panthers cemented their status as a top playoff contender in the NFC and left the mistake-prone Tampa Bay Buccaneers wondering about their future with Chris Simms as quarterback. The Panthers got two rushing touchdowns by tailback Stephen Davis and a dominant performance by their defense and overwhelmed the Buccaneers, 34-14, on Sunday.

The Panthers (6-2) won their fifth straight game and retained a share of first place in the NFC South with the victorious Atlanta Falcons, a game ahead of Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers (5-3) lost their second game in a row since quarterback Brian Griese suffered a season-ending knee injury and was replaced by Simms.

"We're right where we want to be," Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers said. "I think we're starting to get that feeling. We're starting to get it rolling. It's great to be on the road and see the fans leave early. This says we're going to be around and we're a good team. That's all it says. It doesn't say we're the best team in the NFC or the best team in the NFC South. It's too early for that."

Peppers and fellow defensive end Mike Rucker each had two of the Panthers' five sacks, as Carolina's hard-charging defensive line harassed Simms into two interceptions and a fumble. Cornerback Chris Gamble returned one of the interceptions 61 yards for a third-quarter touchdown that extended Carolina's lead to 24-7, and the Panthers made it 34-7 in the fourth quarter before a cosmetic late touchdown for the Buccaneers.

The Buccaneers didn't resemble the team that began the season with five wins in its first six games before losing Griese and turning to Simms.

"That's not the same football team we saw on tape," Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "I'm not going to say it's a statement game. We just got away with a good win."

Tampa Bay committed four turnovers in all, including a fumble lost by rookie tailback Carnell Williams on its first offensive series of the day. Williams again was bottled up, as usually has been the case lately after his quick start to his rookie season. He managed only 29 yards on 11 carries.

"We just shot ourselves in the foot with our mistakes, starting with me fumbling," Williams said. "You can't have that. It wasn't anybody's fault but mine. We just didn't get it done on offense. We didn't play with the same fire we've had before."

Simms completed 25 of 42 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown, a 50-yard strike to wide receiver Joey Galloway in the opening moments of the second quarter. Those were respectable numbers for Simms, but the Buccaneers were done in by his mistakes.

The Buccaneers hoped when Griese got hurt that Simms would limit his gaffes and they could keep winning with the third-year pro in charge. But it hasn't happened. Simms also threw two interceptions, lost a fumble and was sacked five times in a defeat at San Francisco a week ago, and Sunday's boos from an early-departing crowd of 65,014 at Raymond James Stadium almost certainly were a precursor to calls for Coach Jon Gruden to turn to one of Simms's backups, Luke McCown or Tim Rattay.

Gruden said he and his assistant coaches would consider their options but he expected to stick with Simms as the starter for next Sunday's game here against the Washington Redskins. Gruden expressed more concern about an offensive line that did little Sunday to help Williams or Simms. Right tackle Kenyatta Walker was so jumpy playing against Peppers that he committed three false-start penalties on the same second-quarter possession.

"My response was probably what the response was of all Buccaneers fans," Gruden said. "It wasn't good. . . . This is a very good [Panthers] front four. That's well-documented, and they got to us today. We didn't do a good enough job."

Said Walker: "To lose like that and play like that, it's difficult. It's a very disappointing game."

Davis bulldozed his way to touchdown runs of four yards in the first quarter and one yard in the second quarter. Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme threw only 18 passes, but connected on 11 of them for 216 yards and a touchdown -- a 35-yarder to wideout Steve Smith in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. It was the ninth touchdown catch of the season for Smith, who finished the game with five receptions for 106 yards and celebrated his touchdown with a mock fencing routine in the end zone.

Smith and Davis were among the many Panthers players who ended last season on the injured reserve list, as the club slumped to a 7-9 record and missed the playoffs a year after reaching the Super Bowl. The restocked Panthers were a popular Super Bowl pick in the NFC among the preseason prognosticators. They looked like a potential disappointment when they began the season by losing two of their first three games. But they have regrouped and, with the Buccaneers fading, their two games against the Falcons in the final five weeks of the regular season could decide the division title.

"To be 6-2, that's very good," Davis said. "There's a lot of talent on this team, but it takes more than talent to win. You have to be prepared. You have to stay healthy, and you have to catch some breaks. Last year, we couldn't stay healthy. We're doing a better job of that this year, and we're playing some good football right now."

Stephen Davis helped Carolina run its winning streak to five games with a four-yard touchdown in the first quarter and one-yard run in the second. Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker celebrates one of his two sacks against the Buccaneers' Chris Simms. The Panthers' defense had five sacks in all.