NFC South Clash

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are heading back to the playoffs, and coach Jon Gruden wants to make sure his team is still healthy once the regular season ends.

Gruden's starters will likely see only limited action on Sunday when the Buccaneers wrap up the regular season at home against the Carolina Panthers.

Oddsmakers from Bodog have made Carolina -3 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday’s game, the over/under has been set at 36 total points (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 76% of bets for this game have been placed on Tampa Bay +3 (View NFL Football bet percentages).

With the NFC South title already wrapped up, Gruden removed most of his key players in the second half of Sunday's game against San Francisco, even though Tampa Bay (9-6) still had a chance to earn a No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs. The Buccaneers lost 21-19, a defeat that along with Seattle's 27-6 victory over Baltimore assured Tampa Bay of the No. 4 seed.

Still, Gruden, whose team will host the fifth-seeded New York Giants during the first weekend of the playoffs, didn't regret his decision to rest his players.

"It's a decision that we made when we won the division last week," Gruden said. "We've had a number of injuries this year. We've been able to overcome them and qualify for the playoffs. ... I wanted to take this as an opportunity to evaluate some of our other players, and we're glad we did that. It'll be a very similar case next week."

The Panthers (6-9) don't have much at stake this weekend, either. They were officially knocked out of the playoff race when they lost 20-13 to NFC-leading Dallas on Saturday.

Still, Carolina and Tampa Bay have developed a rivalry in the NFC South, and the Buccaneers will be trying to beat the Panthers twice in a season for just the second time and first since 2002. Carolina has won seven of nine against the Bucs and four straight in Tampa Bay since then.

Tampa Bay will also be trying to go 6-0 against division rivals after going 0-6 in the NFC South en route to a 4-12 record last year. But winning in the playoffs would no doubt mean a lot more to the Buccaneers than winning against the Panthers.

"We're not concerned about (momentum) at all," said running back Earnest Graham, who had just 21 yards on nine carries against the 49ers before he was benched. "These coaches have been through a lot of games, and we trust that they'll be making the right calls and have us in the best position for the playoffs."

Quarterback Jeff Garcia, who returned to San Francisco for the first time since he was released by the 49ers in 2004, has been instrumental in leading Tampa Bay to the playoffs for the second time in three years. Garcia, who's been on four teams in the last four seasons, has thrown 13 touchdown passes and just four interceptions and ranks second in the NFC with a 94.6 quarterback rating, behind only the Cowboys' Tony Romo.

Garcia passed for 196 yards and a touchdown before he was pulled against the 49ers and has TD passes in eight of his last nine games. Luke McCown took over for him on Sunday and completed 18 of 32 passes for 185 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

"That's coach's decision," Garcia said of leaving the game early. "That's something he talked to me about prior to going into today and so I understood that I would probably get a half of a game and I just wanted to go out there and try to make the most of it."

Receiver Joey Galloway aggravated a shoulder injury on his only catch, but the 29-yard reception made him the first Tampa Bay receiver with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. His injury is not considered serious.

Carolina has been no stranger to injury this season, especially at quarterback. Since losing starter Jake Delhomme, the Panthers have used three signal-callers and have scored seven or fewer points five times.

However, undrafted rookie Matt Moore has finally given the Panthers some stability. He's started the last two games, including an upset 13-10 victory over NFC West champion Seattle on Dec. 16.

Moore was intercepted once and sacked five times against the Cowboys, but threw his first career touchdown pass to Steve Smith.

"Matt Moore, he's doing an excellent job," Smith said. "Quarterback is supposed to lead the offense, and he's leading the offense."

Smith has benefited from Moore's emergence. The touchdown catch was his first since Oct. 14, and he's caught 17 passes for 209 yards in the last two games after not managing more than 64 receiving yards in any of his previous six.

After Saturday's game, coach John Fox refused to discuss a broadcast report that owner Jerry Richardson said Fox and general manager Marty Hurney would return next year despite their second straight non-winning season. The Panthers will miss the postseason for the fourth time in six years under Fox, who led them to the Super Bowl and the NFC championship game in the other two seasons.

Defensive end Julius Peppers missed the game against Dallas with a knee injury, ending his streak of 78 straight games played, and was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday. Center Justin Hartwig, meanwhile, sprained his right knee and will miss Sunday's game.

By: Staff Writers - Email Us

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