Buccaneers vs. Panthers: Slow-starting Buccaneers, slow-finishing Panthers try to solve their problems tonight

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One team can't seem to get started. The other can't finish.

No wonder the matchup tonight between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers has lost much of its appeal.

Last season, the Buccaneers and Panthers each went 11-5 and split two meetings in the regular season. Tampa Bay won the NFC South on a tiebreaker, but Carolina did better in the playoffs, reaching the NFC championship game.

But this game is not a battle for the division lead. Instead it pits the third- and fourth-place teams with serious flaws.

The Buccaneers (2-6) have scored a total of seven points in the first quarter all season.

The Panthers (4-4) have led going into the fourth quarter in seven of eight games, only to lose three of them.

They haven't scored a point in the second half in the past two games, both losses.

"You have to finish games. Whether it's the coaches or players, we've got to finish," Panthers receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "We can't play scared. We can't coach scared. We can't cheer scared. We've got to play. We've got to do what other teams do, put teams away."

It's the opposite problem for the Buccaneers, who have been outscored, 44-7, in the first quarter. The trend continued last week when New Orleans jumped to a 14-0 lead after the opening quarter en route to a 31-14 rout.

"At the beginning of the game I think everyone is a little anxious and just a little excited to get out there," said rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who became the starter after Chris Simms ruptured his spleen in the first meeting with Carolina on Sept. 24. "The ball might come out of my hand a little faster, quicker, and guys are wanting to get off the ball quicker. I think that's natural for the beginning of games, but we just have to learn from it and just come out there and start faster and be poised about it."

Simms' injury and problems on defense quickly derailed Tampa Bay's season. While Gradkowski has thrown only one interception, the Buccaneers have the second-worst offense in the league. Five times, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams has rushed for 48 yards or less, including last week, when he managed only 39 yards on 12 carries against the Saints.

On defense, Simeon Rice has only two sacks as a sore shoulder has affected his play. He and defensive tackle Ellis Wyms missed practice time late in the week and may not play tonight, giving coach Jon Gruden more headaches. The Buccaneers rank 22nd in the NFL in total defense.



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