CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden has been kidded for years about those odd facial expressions that bear a striking resemblance to Chucky, the homicidal doll from the ``Child's Play'' horror films.
Gruden's face bent into awkward shapes again when he popped in the tape of the Carolina Panthers' last game and saw old nemesis Steve Smith making spectacular catches again.
``Steve Smith is a nightmare,'' Gruden said. ``He's like Freddy Krueger. He scares the hell out of me. Every film I pick up, he's brilliant.''
Chucky vs. Freddy Krueger, just another plot twist in the heated Buccaneers-Panthers rivalry, renewed Monday night with plenty on the line.
They're both 9-3 and tied atop the NFC South. The winner takes control of the division in a conference so strong that depending on a wild-card berth is a risky proposition.
n find a way to slow down the guy that reminds him of the ``Nightmare on Elm Street'' star.
``Steve, to me is the best,'' said Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber, who will try to defend the speedy Smith. ``He really knows how to outwork guys to catch the football. And once he catches the ball he knows how to outwork guys for extra yards. I have as much respect for Steve as anybody in the league.''
The 5-foot-9 Smith has overcome his two-game suspension for breaking teammate Ken Lucas' nose in training camp to move within 42 yards receiving of 1,000 on the season.
In Carolina's comeback 35-31 win over Green Bay last week, Smith had a 36-yard catch to set up the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. Then he made a remarkable leaping 54-yard grab over Charles Woodson on Jake Delhomme's underthrown ball. It set up DeAngelo Williams' winning 1-yard TD run.
In the past two games, Smith has 273 yards receiving. With Williams leading a stout running game, Carolina has overcome a suddenly struggling defense to win five of its last six games.
``He's a very good player and even when he doesn't get the ball he can affect a football game,'' Delhomme said of Smith. ``Just like last week with us running it, he affects it because safeties will cheat to his side.''
ting at Tampa Bay 27-3, Smith managed six catches for 112 yards.
``He just scares me. I don't like to see Steve,'' Gruden said. ``I have a lot of respect for him. He's really hurt us bad in some games.''
Smith, sixth in the league in yards receiving, doesn't mind the Freddy Krueger comparison.
``That's a great compliment and I appreciate it,'' Smith said. ``As an offensive guy, you always admire offensive-minded coaches.''
But the Bucs have put themselves in position to defend their NFC South title on the strength of their defense.
Tampa Bay intercepted Drew Brees three times in last week's 23-20 win over New Orleans. Tampa Bay's fourth-rated defense picked off Delhomme three times in the first meeting.
The defense has allowed Tampa Bay to win six of its nine games after trailing early. The Panthers, meanwhile, have four fourth-quarter comeback wins.
Sounds like a pretty good backdrop for a rivalry that has simmered for years.
``Right now everything is at stake,'' Bucs receiver Michael Clayton said. ``We feel like we control our own destiny, I'm sure that they feel the same.''
The game also marks the return to Charlotte for Bucs running back Carnell ``Cadillac'' Williams, who 14 months ago suffered a career-threatening knee injury at Bank of America Stadium.
s season-ending ankle injury.
``We all know that's where the big tragedy happened,'' Williams said. ``Me personally, I'm really looking forward to it. It's going to be fun.''
It may be quite enjoyable for Williams if the Panthers don't shore up their leaky run defense. They've allowed at least 130 yards rushing in four straight games. They've surrendered 98 points in the past three, causing them to plummet from second to seventh in the league in points allowed.
Warrick Dunn was the first back to rush for over 100 yards against Carolina this season, racking up 115 in the October rout.
Plus, the Panthers have had fits trying to stop Jeff Garcia. The mobile QB got his starting job back in the first meeting against Carolina and has gone 6-1 since. He's also won his last five starts against the Panthers.
``The good thing is, the effort's there,'' linebacker Jon Beason said of the Panthers' defensive woes. ``The offense bailed us out some games this year.''
Smith might have to do that again for the Panthers to move into first place. A loss would leave them in effect two games back with three to go because they'd lose the tiebreaker to Tampa Bay.
Now that's a scary prospect.
``Every game is important,'' Smith said. ``But this is a big one.''

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