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Second-half surge lifts Panthers, 24-10

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Nov. 13, 2006) -- After a 15-day layover to stew about their fourth-quarter meltdown against Dallas, the Carolina Panthers came out so flat on offense that the crowd booed them off the field at halftime.

Steve Smith was feeling sick, Keyshawn Johnson fumbled, Jake Delhomme threw an interception and punter Jason Baker was awfully busy the rest of the time.

In the second half, the bumbling Tampa Bay Buccaneers bailed them out.

Delhomme threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Johnson for the go-ahead score in the third quarter and Julius Peppers had three sacks and recovered a fumble as the Panthers beat the Buccaneers 24-10 to end a two-game losing streak.

Smith was seen repeatedly vomiting into a garbage can on the sidelines, once after a long catch early in the second half. But he stayed in the game, catching eight passes for 149 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter that sealed it.

"My little girl was sick," Smith said, "and so, she's a daddy's girl, kissing on me and so -- I got the flu. What happens in the house just goes around the parents."

Smith said he fought through the wooziness, because "this is how I feed my family."

Rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski threw two interceptions and lost a fumble for the Buccaneers (2-7), who committed turnovers on four of five possessions in the second and third quarters to blow a 7-0 halftime lead in their third straight loss.

"I'm just sick about the outcome of the game," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "Carolina is a good football team. We turned the ball over and missed some opportunities to make some big plays."

The Panthers, who had said they couldn't wait to play again after being outscored 25-0 in the final quarter against the Cowboys, managed only three first downs and 98 yards in the first half. Their drives in that half went: punt, fumble, punt, punt, punt, interception.

"The first half we didn't run it well enough, we didn't throw it well enough," Delhomme said. "It was an embarrassment in the first half. Second half we answered. The defense forced turnovers and we made more plays. We did enough things to win in the second half."

Fans, upset with the play-calling and the Panthers inability to run, showed their displeasure early and saved the loudest boos as the Panthers walked off the field at halftime with only three first downs against a team missing three defensive starters to injury, including Simeon Rice.

Carolina scored on four of their first six drives in the second half -- but then, the Buccaneers made it easy for the Panthers to come back. Gradkowski's third turnover of the game, a fumble forced by Chris Draft and recovered by Peppers, gave Carolina the ball at the Tampa Bay 44.

Delhomme then found Smith for a 21-yard catch-and-run, setting up Delhomme's 4-yard TD pass to Johnson. It gave Carolina its first lead, 10-7 midway through the third quarter.

Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, held to 44 yards on 15 carries, fumbled on the next possession and Mike Minter recovered at the Tampa Bay 16. Four plays later Brad Hoover's 5-yard touchdown run put Carolina up 17-7.

"I got careless with the ball," Williams said. "I think my turnover created momentum for Carolina."

It marked the eighth time in nine games the Panthers held the lead going into the fourth quarter, unlike on three previous occasions, the Panthers held on with Peppers, who took over the league lead with 11 sacks, making life difficult for Gradkowski.

Coming into the game with only one interception in 186 pass attempts, an NFL record for most attempts without two picks, Gradkowski struggled with his accuracy. He overthrew open Joey Galloway for what would have been a touchdown in the first quarter.

"I have to go out there and not try to do to much," said Gradkowski, who became the starter when Chris Simms suffered a ruptured spleen in the first meeting with Carolina. "I feel like I was competing. Sometimes you just try to do too much."

Gradkowski later underthrew two passes near the end zone, resulting in interceptions for Ken Lucas and Shaun Williams. He even bounced a pass off Peppers' helmet and Gruden started screaming at him in the first half.

"I think the first series, we had Galloway wide open. You've got to make those plays," Gruden said. "Then we had (Michael) Clayton at the end of the half and we didn't make that play. It's a turnover. We fumbled the ball in successive series to start the second half. That's a big reason why we lost."

Gradkowski, who was 17 of 32 for 173 yards, did take advantage when Ronde Barber ripped the ball away from the ex-Buccaneer Johnson near midfield late in the first quarter. Five plays later Gradkowski tossed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Ike Hilliard.

That was enough to take a halftime lead on the Panthers. The boos started early when offensive coordinator Dan Henning called for a running play on third-and-11 and DeShaun Foster gained only five yards.

By the end, everyone in Carolina -- even Smith -- was feeling better with the win.

"It means in the second half of the season," Smith said, "we're 1-0."

Notes: Smith, who said he wouldn't return punts anymore after fumbling one against Dallas Oct. 29, returned one punt for no gain in the first half. ... Alstott's second-quarter reception moved him past Johnson into third place on the Buccaneers' all-time list. ... Besides Rice, Ellis Wyms (ankle) and Shelton Quarles (knee) sat out for the Bucs. ... The Panthers have won seven of the past eight meetings between the teams.

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