Panthers 24, Buccaneers 10

Tuesday, November 14th 2006, 6:16 am
By: News On 6

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ Steve Smith, sick with the flu, kept going over to a trash can in between series to vomit.

However, he still had enough strength to rally the Carolina Panthers after a rough first half.

Smith caught eight passes for 149 yards, including the clinching 36-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter as the Carolina Panthers rallied to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24-10 on Monday night.

``My little girl was sick,'' Smith said, ``She's a daddy's girl, kissing on me and so _ I got the flu. What happens in the house just goes around the parents.''

Jake Delhomme threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Keyshawn Johnson for the go-ahead score in the third quarter and Julius Peppers had three sacks and recovered a fumble as the Panthers (5-4) snapped a two-game losing streak and moved within a game of NFC South-leading New Orleans.

Smith said he fought through wooziness, and came up with key plays after the Panthers were shut out in the first half. His 43-yard catch set up John Kasay's 28-yard field goal. His 21-yard catch set up Johnson's TD catch against his former team to put the Panthers ahead for good.

Rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski threw two interceptions and lost a fumble for the Buccaneers (2-7), who committed turnovers on four of five possessions in the second and third quarters to blow a 7-0 halftime lead in their third straight loss.

``I felt pretty good actually,'' said Gradkowski, who became the starter when Chris Simms suffered a ruptured spleen in the first meeting against Carolina in September. ``I felt like I was out there competing and I just missed a couple of throws. It stinks that it happened tonight when I was feeling good.''

Panthers fans weren't feeling well at halftime, sending the Panthers to the locker room with a chorus of boos. In their first game since being outscored 25-0 in the fourth quarter in a loss to Dallas, the Panthers had three first downs and 98 yards in the first half _ against a defense missing three starters including Simeon Rice.

``It was pretty much an embarrassment the way we were playing in the first half,'' Delhomme said. ``The second half we answered.''

Carolina scored on four of their first six drives in the second half _ but then, the Buccaneers made it easy for the Panthers to come back.

Gradkowski's third turnover of the game, a fumble forced by Chris Draft and recovered by Peppers, set up Johnson's 4-yard TD catch.

Carnell ``Cadillac'' Williams, held to 44 yards on 15 carries, fumbled on the next possession, leading to Brad Hoover's 5-yard touchdown run that put Carolina ahead 17-7.

``It was just one of those situations where I was trying to make a play,'' Williams said. ``I got careless with the ball.''

It marked the eighth time in nine games the Panthers held the lead going into the fourth quarter. However, unlike on three previous occasions, the Panthers held on with Peppers, who took over the league lead with 11 sacks and made life difficult for Gradkowski.

``I'm not going to be too critical of my young quarterback because he did do some good things,'' Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. ``Obviously he was under a little duress today. Carolina is an outstanding pass rushing team.''

Coming into the game with only one interception in 186 games, an NFL record for most attempts without two picks, Gradkowski struggled with his accuracy. He overthrew open Joey Galloway for what would have been a touchdown in the first quarter.

Gradkowski later underthrew two passes near the end zone, resulting in interceptions for Ken Lucas and Shaun Williams.

Gradkowski, who was 17-of-32 for 173 yards, did take advantage when Ronde Barber ripped the ball away from Johnson near midfield late in the first quarter. Five plays later Gradkowski tossed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Ike Hilliard to make it 7-0.