The victory silenced the Bucs (4-5) and dropped them three games behind the Panthers (7-2) in the NFC South and Carolina holds the tiebreaker.
"I'll say it: I can't stand them," defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said. "When they pull on their red and we pull on our blue, it's like the Bloods and the Crips. They talk too much, they want to flash `I'm a superstar.' Well, now that talk don't mean nothing.
"We beat them not once, but twice, and I'm going to celebrate while they go home to watch TV."
Defensive end Simeon Rice guaranteed a Buccaneers victory earlier this week, but the defending champions are now left with a rocky road ahead to even make the playoffs.
Still, not even their third division loss of the season -- the Bucs lost to New Orleans last week -- silenced Rice.
"There's going to be a guarantee next week, too, because that's me," Rice said. "No situation is going to break me."
Carolina declined to respond to Tampa Bay's baiting all week, promising the Panthers would have plenty to say Sunday.
"They thought they were going to win and we thought otherwise," Delhomme said. "We just kept our mouths shut and went to work."
That was evident as the two sparred on nearly every play, leading to trash-talking, taunting, and flaring on-field tempers. In the end, Walker had been flagged for three personal fouls and Peppers was laughing his way all the way into the locker room.
"I pay him as little attention as I pay someone walking down the street," Peppers said. "They were the world champs last year and now they have five losses. Maybe now we won't have to hear all the talk, talk, talk that they do."
But the Bucs almost backed up their words with a late rally behind Brad Johnson, who threw two-fourth quarter touchdowns to lift them out of a 20-13 hole.
His 23-yard touchdown pass to Keyshawn Johnson made it 20-14 with 10:19 to play. On the next possession, facing fourth-and-1, Brad Johnson dumped off an 18-yard pass to Warren Sapp to keep the drive alive.
Keenan McCardell then made a one-armed circus catch at the edge of the end zone for a 36-yard touchdown and a 21-20 Tampa Bay lead with 4:44 to play.
The Bucs seemed to put the game away when Delhomme was intercepted for the second time by Tim Wansley, who returned the first one 23 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. Wansley set up Martin Gramatica's 39-yard field goal for a 24-20 lead.
Surely that would be enough against a team admittedly not built to for comebacks.
Not this time against a Bucs defense that has failed to come up with many big stops this season.
"I'm not going to put the defense on trial anymore," coach Jon Gruden said. "Obviously we let the game slip away at the end."
Already playing without Stephen Davis, the NFC's leading rusher and the only real pulse in Carolina's offense, the Panthers had to rely on Delhomme and a suspect passing game to win it.
As both teams hurried back to the line, Delhomme quickly hit Smith on the edge of the end zone. Smith was in the air when he made the catch and was flipped over the line by a defender for the go-ahead score.
"We want to be known as a running team and that's great," Delhomme said. "But when the opportunity to throw the ball comes up, we're going to make plays."
Delhomme finished 20-for-32 for 277 yards with two touchdowns -- he also threw a 66-yarder to Proehl -- and two interceptions. Proehl finished with three catches for 133 yards.
- Rice had two sacks to help the Bucs set an NFL record of 69 consecutive games with at least one sack.
- The Bucs continued their streak of 50 consecutive games with a takeaway.
- Carolina safety Mike Minter scored on a 29-yard interception return.
- John Kasay made both his field goals to remain a perfect 20-for-20 on the year.
- McCardell finished with nine catches for 118 yards.
The Associated Press News Service
Copyright 2003, The Associated Press, All Rights Reserved