- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Carolina Panthers were a popular preseason pick to win the NFC, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were seen by many as a strong choice to return to the playoffs this season.

The loser of Sunday’s meeting between those two teams, however, can forget playing in the postseason.

A defeat would leave the Panthers with an 0-3 record with two losses in the NFC South and three in the conference. The Bucs, meanwhile, would be 0-3 with three losses in the division.

“You’re going to have two very angry teams,” said Bucs quarterback Chris Simms, who has six interceptions and no touchdowns in his second year as a starter. “You’re going to get two teams getting to that point where a win is pretty essential.”

In the 16 seasons since the playoffs were expanded to 12 teams, only San Diego in 1992, Detroit in 1995 and Buffalo in 1998 have recovered from an 0-3 start to qualify for postseason.

The Panthers narrowly lost the Super Bowl after the 2003 season and finished as the NFC runner-up last year even though their running game was battered by the time of the playoffs.

This season, they added veteran receiver Keyshawn Johnson and rookie running back DeAngelo Williams and welcomed back Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins from a season-ending knee injury he suffered in the 2005 opener.

However, the absence of All-Pro receiver Steve Smith for the first two games with an injured hamstring has hamstrung the Carolina offense.

The Panthers scored just 19 points in those games and converted just five of 26 third downs. The defense surrendered 750 yards but allowed just two touchdowns (the Minnesota Vikings’ game-tying score last week came on a fake field goal attempt).

“It might be desperation on the outside, but that can’t be allowed on the inside,” Panthers coach John Fox said. “I don’t think we’re at that point yet, but the proof will be in the pudding this week.”

The Bucs’ start is more inexplicable.

Like the Panthers, the Buccaneers were trampled by the Atlanta Falcons’ ground attack. A Buccaneer defense that ranked first overall and sixth against the run last season was gashed for a franchise-record 306 rushing yards. That disaster came on the heels of a 27-0 whipping by the visiting Baltimore Ravens, who arrived with an 11-game road losing streak.

“There were some opportunities to make big plays [last week] and we’ve got to make them,” said coach Jon Gruden, whose Bucs have scored all of three points. “And until we do, we’re going to struggle against good football teams. I believe [that we’re] going to fight our way out of this hole, and we’ve got to prove we can do that. And so does Carolina. That’s why it’s going to be a heck of a game.”

If the Bucs lose, they’ll own the division cellar heading into their bye week after finishing first in 2005. Only four teams — the 1999 Broncos, 2003 Jets and 2005 Eagles and Packers — have gone the first-to-worst route in the past decade.

Missing Hutch

The Seahawks let All-Pro left guard Steve Hutchinson leave as a free agent in March because the Vikings’ offer was impossible to match and they figured All-Pro left tackle Walter Jones could carry whoever replaced Hutchinson.

That plan isn’t working so well.

The Seahawks surrendered eight sacks in victories over the Lions and Cardinals, two teams that combined for only one in their other two games. The Seahawks gave up just 27 sacks all last season in winning the NFC.

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