TAMPA, Fla. -- As long as Tampa Bay keeps winning, Raheem Morris doesn't care how others feel about how the surprising Buccaneers stack up against the rest of the NFC.
The NFL's youngest team has already doubled its win total from last season, impressing their coach with the type of resilience that's normally associated with more experienced teams.
Rebounding from a tough loss to Atlanta that knocked them out of first place in the NFC South, the Bucs (6-3) beat the Carolina Panthers 31-16 Sunday.
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Losing to the Falcons forced Morris to back off his declaration that Tampa Bay is the best team in the NFC, however the Bucs are convinced they have what it takes to remain in contention for a playoff berth.
"This team has done it throughout the season," Morris said. "We got beat bad by the Pittsburgh Steelers and we bounced back. We came out got beat bad by the New Orleans Saints and we bounced back. It's no different when you get beat by Atlanta. ... You can't have any hangovers. This team is too young for hangovers."
Freeman threw TD passes of 8 yards to Arrelious Benn and 20 yards to Kellen Winslow. Blount rushed for 91 yards and scored on a 17-yard run in the first half, and Cadillac Williams put the game out of reach with a 45-yard TD burst on third-and-10 late in the fourth quarter.
Josh Vaughan scored on a 2-yard run and John Kasay kicked field goals of 46, 28 and 48 yards for the Panthers, who also drove to the Tampa Bay 1 in the closing seconds only to have Clausen denied the end zone on consecutive quarterback sneaks.
"I thought Jimmy played well enough to give us a chance, and I think he'll continue to improve," Carolina coach John Fox said of the second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame.
"We knew it was going to be tough sledding. Their quarterback does an outstanding job," Fox said. "They operate pretty smooth in the passing game, and I thought they did so today as well."
Tampa Bay started seven rookies, including Benn and fellow receiver Mike Williams, who also had a productive day. According to the Bucs, the last time a team started as many as seven rookies in a game it won, Dallas beat Jacksonville on Nov. 24, 2002.
Freeman, who's in his second season, completed 18 of 24 passes for 241 yards and no interceptions. Cadillac Williams gained 16 yards on a third-down screen pass to keep the clinching drive alive, then broke through an opening on the right side of the line and raced untouched to the end zone to end any chance for a Carolina comeback.
|Carolina's entire starting backfield didn't play against Tampa. That said, Carolina's backups didn't have enough to get it done. RB Mike Goodson ended up with 100 yards on 23 carries. The Carolina defense, meantime, had trouble stopping Tampa's running game, which has struggled for much of the season, but gained 187 yards.|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|One of the more encouraging stats went to the ground game, which rushed for 187 yards, including 91 for rookie RB LeGarrette Blount. QB Josh Freeman was solid throughout, completing 18 of 24 for 241 yards and two TDs. Tampa's defense, which gave up 296 total yards, raised its game at crucial moments.|
|By Scott Purks|
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Already last in the league in yards gained and points scored, the Panthers played without injured running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and simply lacked the firepower to keep up with a Bucs offense that's become more balanced since the 247-pound Blount took on a bigger role three weeks ago.
The rookie best known for punching an opposing player after a game when he was in college at Oregon, carried five times for 73 yards on an 87-yard scoring drive that Tampa Bay covered entirely on the ground. He broke runs of 12, 24 and 17 yards before finishing the drive with another 17-yarder that put the Bucs up 14-3 early in the second quarter.
"We came out fast, executed our game plan and did everything we planned," Blount said. "The defense came out and played well also."
Although Goodson had some success running the ball for Carolina, Clausen rarely looked to throw downfield and put pressure on the Bucs with the passing game.
The rookie's longest completion was 18 yards until Clausen completed a 24-yarder up the sideline to Steve Smith to set up the first of two field goals Kasay kicked in the third quarter to trim Tampa Bay's lead to 21-16.
Freeman reduced the suspense, leading a fourth-quarter field goal drive that Connor Barth finished with a 32-yarder that made it 24-16 with 10 minutes remaining.
Clausen was 16 of 29 passing for 191 yards and no interceptions. He was sacked twice.
"I thought guys made improvements. The results weren't quite what we were looking for," said Fox, noting that the Panthers are also coping with injuries.
"When you're in a close game like that, field goals are not going win a game for you," Clausen added. "When you get down to the red zone, you need to put seven points on the board."
- Winslow had six receptions for 65 yards. His TD was his first of the season.
- Mike Williams had four catches for 68 yards and Benn finished with two for 29 yards for Tampa Bay.
- The Panthers were swept by their NFC South rivals for the first time since 2002, the year the division was formed.