CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -The unloved, often forgotten and pretty darn competitive NFC South finally gets a night of its own.
When the Carolina Panthers (9-3) host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-3) on Monday night, more than just the division lead is at stake. The nation has a chance to take a break from the New York Giants and Plaxico Burress, the Dallas Cowboys' latest story line and the newest twist from the Philadelphia Eagles and examine the NFC South, which statistically compares quite favorably to the much-publicized, higher-profile NFC East.
``There's been nobody down here except when Brett Favre was reportedly coming here during the preseason,'' Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber said of the lack of media attention. ``We've just methodically gone about our business, just like Carolina, and racked up nine wins.
``Monday night, the eyes of the country get to see this division at its best.''
record in the NFL, the Panthers and Bucs clearly feel unappreciated.
``I think the only reason it's going to be showcased is because it's on Monday night,'' Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad said of the matchup. ``After Monday, I think we'll go back to being under the radar again.''
The lack of large media markets, marquee stars and off-field trouble have kept the NFC South out of the limelight, despite Carolina's return to prominence, Tampa Bay's strong play, the marked improvement by Atlanta (8-4) and high-scoring New Orleans (6-6).
Their combined record of 32-16 is barely behind the NFC East's mark of 32-15-1.
Could the NFC South even be better than the East?
``It's hard to say,'' said Barber, who anointed the Giants as the league's best team right now. ``But I know we have two 9-3 teams, an 8-4 team and we just beat New Orleans, which by far is the best offense in the NFL. I think the numbers kind of speak for themselves.''
Critics touting the NFC East will point to Carolina's inconsistency and Tampa Bay's risky style of playing from behind.
You only have to look at the first Panthers-Buccaneers meeting to feel uneasy about Carolina. A blocked punt and the first of Jake Delhomme's three interceptions staked Tampa Bay to a 14-0 first-quarter lead en route to a 27-3 rout in Week 6.
``The way they beat us last time was an embarrassment to our organization and ourselves,'' cornerback Ken Lucas said.
The Panthers have gone 5-1 since, but how they've done it is puzzling. Their defense was carrying a sluggish offense for a while. Now, the offense has bailed out a suddenly leaky D.
A week after giving up 45 points in a loss to the Falcons, the Panthers were in another shootout last week at Green Bay. Steve Smith's miraculous 54-yard catch in the snow set up DeAngelo Williams' fourth 1-yard touchdown run in a thrilling 35-31 win.
The Buccaneers have won four straight, including 23-20 over New Orleans last week when they intercepted Drew Brees three times. But Tampa Bay has also had to rally to beat lowly Detroit and Kansas City in the past month.
Pretty or not, both teams have the results. Now the fierce rivals face off for their most important late-season game since 2005, when the Buccaneers came to Charlotte and knocked off the Panthers 20-10 en route to winning the division.
``This is a big one,'' Smith said.
And the little Smith may be the key. The Buccaneers contained the 5-foot-9 receiver in the first game, holding him to three catches for 43 yards. In the last two weeks, Smith has 273 yards receiving.
The Panthers also have a much better rushing attack than in Week 6, with Williams 45 yards shy of 1,000. Williams has at least one rushing TD in five straight games.
But if the Panthers are to improve to 7-0 at home, they'll have to find a way to contain their nemesis, Jeff Garcia. The Bucs are 6-1 since Garcia regained the starting quarterback job, and Garcia has won his last five starts against Carolina. With running back Earnest Graham (ankle) out for the season, more is expected of Garcia. ``He makes quick decisions. He's got good mobility. He buys time,'' Panthers coach John Fox said. ``It's all the same things that the Steve Youngs, the Donovan McNabbs, that have operated in the West Coast offense over the years.''
The Buccaneers would be in firm control of the division with a win Monday, taking a virtual two-game lead over Carolina with three to play thanks to the tiebreaker edge. A Panthers victory would put them in position to win their first division title since their Super Bowl season in 2003.
And it will all play out under the Monday night lights. The Panthers and Bucs will finally get the attention they think they deserve - in a division crying for some love.
``It's a great rivalry,'' Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. ``If people don't know about it, that's their own agenda.''

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