|Rick Havner / Associated Press|
|Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams proved to be too much for Tampa Bay's defense to handle Monday night.|
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As the final seconds ticked off the Panthers' 38-23 victory over Tampa Bay on Monday night, Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams sprinted to the locker room, invoking images of Forrest Gump. Then again, he was relatively fresh, despite churning out an astounding 186 yards on just 19 carries.
Rookie backup Jonathan Stewart spelled him enough to touch the ball 15 times -- for 115 yards. Two players, 301 yards. Against Tampa Bay, which entered the game with the fourth-best defense in the NFL.
Run, Forrest, run.
Williams and Stewart scored two touchdowns each. Combined, they averaged 8.9 yards a carry.
With the effort, Carolina (10-3) resoundingly took the lead in the ultra-competitive NFC South and put itself in prime position to not only make the playoffs but to route it through Bank of America Stadium. ( Click here for complete playoff picture.)
"We aren't trying to send messages," Stewart said. "We are just trying to win a game."
Very well said. Maybe, even, very well intentioned.
But a message was sent. A message was delivered.
Carolina has one of the more frightful set of running backs in the NFL, and this time of year, when you can run the ball ... you know the rest.
The only other serious playoff team with multiple threats at running back in the NFC is New York. Atlanta packs a punch with Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood but the Falcons might not get to the postseason, especially the way things played out over the weekend. Minnesota's tandem of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor is fearsome, but it's a lot more Peterson than Peterson-Taylor.
Williams and Stewart have been touted as a nice tandem all season, but only once before Monday night had they reached their full potential together; they both surpassed 100 yards in Week 11 against Detroit. One, mostly Williams, would have a strong game with the other being a nice complement. They were even given a cute moniker: Smash and Dash.
Williams said he didn't mind the tag but winced when pushed about it, almost as if it gave more of an image of Rocky and Bullwinkle than the Giants' Earth, Wind & Fire (Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw).
After Monday night, everything could change; mindset, playoff path and nickname.
"The Fans gave us that," Williams said of Smash and Dash, saying he didn't even know which role was designated for him.
Against the Bucs, Williams grounded out some tough yards early, but the first half was a relative stalemate until Stewart scored on a 2-yard run late in the second quarter to give the Panthers a 10-3 lead. Nothing special. Very workmanlike.
In the third quarter, Tampa Bay showed its fighter's chin to tie the score at 10.
Then Carolina put into effect the element of the offense that not only let Williams and Stewart get rolling, but is also going to make defensive coordinators in Denver, New York (Giants) and New Orleans -- the teams remaining on its schedule -- pause.
Quarterback Jake Delhomme started feeding the ball to his security blanket, Steve Smith, who is still considered among the top five wide receivers in the NFL. Smith caught short, intermediate and long balls. His 38-yard touchdown put Carolina up 17-10, a short-lived lead that Tampa Bay matched in the third quarter with its last gasp.
By throwing to Smith, who had his third straight 100-yard game (nine catches, 117 yards), the Buccaneers had to back their safeties out of the box. That allowed Carolina to even the blocking matchups and win the man-to-man battles up front.
That was all Williams and Stewart needed.
They used the flexibility of the zone-blocking scheme to feint inside runs, which they ran most of the time in the first half, and bounced them outside, where Tampa Bay was left naked. Both backs broke off long runs, Williams the longest, a 41-yarder -- one more yard than Carolina rushed for in total in a 27-3 loss to Tampa Bay earlier this season.
"We were able to run at will at times," said fullback Brad Hoover, who served as the steam-rolling escort for both backs.
Williams has quietly rushed for more than 100 yards in six of Carolina's last seven games. He has 1,141 yards for the season. He also broke Stephen Davis' club record for rushing touchdowns in a season with 13. The breakout season comes in his third year after being drafted in the first round in 2006 to be the sidekick to DeSean Foster. Williams worked out. Foster didn't.
Stewart was a first-round pick this season and there were thoughts of a similar replay, with Stewart taking over for Williams. The veteran said he didn't feel slighted. Instead, he amped up his game, and here we are.
"We have a great, competitive feel when we're at practice and when we're in the game," Williams said. "We talk to each other on the field. He tells me what he sees. I tell him what I see."
For Tampa Bay, getting gashed like it did by a tandem backfield can send it one of two ways. It can refocus for another test, on the road, against Atlanta's explosive duo of Turner and Norwood next Sunday. Or it can continue to hold on for dear life.
This game, for the most part, was an aberration. The Bucs hadn't allowed but one rushing touchdown all season, a mark Carolina quadrupled. Only Kansas City's Jamal Charles rushed for more than 100 yards against Tampa Bay. The Bucs chalked things up to an off night.
"We didn't have an answer for their offense," coach Jon Gruden said. "I'm still confident that our defense can rebound from this and finish the season strong."
The success Tampa Bay has enjoyed most of this season -- and losses by Atlanta and Dallas in Week 14 -- provided enough of a safety net for the Bucs to still get into the playoffs. They came into the game with Carolina a confident group but one with some wiggle room. They were dealt a humbling combination of body and head shots that left them wobbly -- and having to contend with a short week of preparation.
"We're a little disappointed but we're not discouraged," Buccaneers defensive end Kevin Carter said. "We played ourselves into this position. It gives us a chance to make something happen going toward the playoffs, so nothing's really changed."
Things have changed, though. Even Williams admitted it.
"We've flown under the radar all year and we've had no problem with it, and if we continue to fly under the radar, we still don't have a problem with it," the Panthers back said. "I have a feeling we won't be flying under the radar anymore."