Carolina gets win, but there's room for improvement

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For a Carolina Panthers franchise that had lost two straight games and struggled mightily to live up to its preseason press clippings, at least it was a win.

But if the Panthers came into Monday night's game against the limping Tampa Bay Bucs seeking a panacea to jump-start a playoff run over the second half of the season, an uninspiring victory didn't exactly qualify as a cure-all. In fact, even some of the most optimistic Panthers veterans acknowledged that the 24-10 victory felt more like a placebo at times.

"Look, this is the NFL and there aren't any 'gimme' games, so you never apologize any time you win," said left offensive tackle Jordan Gross. "But we're still not where we need to be if we plan to accomplish the goals that we've set for ourselves. It wasn't our 'A' game by any means. In fact, I don't know if we have played our 'A' game yet. But the good thing is that we came out in the second half and finished off a game, which has been a problem for us. So, hopefully, we take that as a positive and use it as something that we can build on."

Perhaps the victory will provide the Panthers the kind of momentum they sorely need. They did close the game strongly, which had been a problem, given that the Panthers had squandered a league-worst three games in which they led entering the fourth quarter.

But if Monday night is to be considered a jumping-off point when the season is reviewed, Carolina must overcome a sluggish offense that looked more like a belly-whopper off the 10-meter platform. Trailing 7-0 at intermission and unable to mount a consistent running attack against a threadbare Tampa Bay defense that was without three front-seven starters, the Panthers were again rescued by the guy who has become their personal bail bondsman.

Wide receiver Steve Smith had five receptions for 117 yards in the second half and finished with eight catches for 149 yards. Early in the third quarter, he stirred the offense from hibernation with a 43-yard catch that set up a John Kasay field goal. On the following possession, he added an eight-yard grab on third-and-7, extending a drive that consummated with Keyshawn Johnson's four-yard scoring catch, a reception that gave Carolina a lead it never relinquished.

And when the Panthers tossed the final shovel of dirt on the Bucs, who kept shooting themselves in the foot on offense, it was Smith who provided the clincher with a 36-yard touchdown catch.

Several times during the game, Smith, who endured an emotionally draining week after his paternal grandfather succumbed to liver cancer last weekend, upchucked on the sideline. Panthers coach John Fox, pun intended, noted that his star receiver "gutted it out." But until Smith started making big plays at key junctures, the Panthers' offense went ailing for long stretches.

Because Tampa Bay played without pass-rushing defensive end Simeon Rice, defensive tackle Ellis Wyms and middle linebacker Shelton Quarles, one would have surmised their run defense would have made for easy pickings. But Carolina had problems creating creases up front and finished with 78 yards on 30 carries.

Fox agreed that, against a "cover two" scheme, the alignment the Bucs have made so famous, it should be easier to run. But saying it and doing it were polar opposites.

"We didn't have a lot of luck running the ball, did we?" said tailback DeShaun Foster, understating the obvious, after he managed just 48 yards on 13 rushes.

What the Panthers did have was good fortune in creating and taking advantage of turnovers. Bucs rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who threw just one interception in his first 202 attempts this season, was picked off twice in four passes in the second half, both times when he forced the ball deep. Carolina's first two touchdowns were set up by Tampa Bay fumbles, the Panthers needing to march only 44 and 16 yards to score.

"We gave them some cheapies, definitely, and that hurt," said Gradkowski, who inherited the starting job when Chris Simms went out for the season with a ruptured spleen. "You can't allow easy scores, you know, short fields, against any team, let alone a good one like they are."

But are the Panthers as advertised in preseason, when a lot of pundits made them the favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLI? Not yet.

Carolina's offensive line has been cobbled together because of injuries and the linebacker corps has been thinned by a variety of ailments, notably the season-ending concussion to Dan Morgan. The Panthers still possess Super Bowl-type potential, and, as Smith demonstrated again in the second half on Monday, he is a player capable of single-handedly dominating an opponent. They also have a strong defensive player of the year candidate in left end Julius Peppers, who had three sacks and three pressures.

For much of Monday night, though, something was missing. And to suggest the Panthers found a secret formula in the second half, one that will propel them on a long winning skein, seems hyperbole.

The Panthers got some help in the NFC South on Sunday, when New Orleans and Atlanta lost. At 5-4, Carolina is back in the chase. But several Panthers veterans said they must play better to handle a handle a fairly daunting schedule over the final two months, one that includes season-ending return engagements against the Falcons (on Christmas Eve) and Saints (New Year's Eve).

Carolina, which dropped its first two games of the season and then won four in a row before back-to-back defeats, must get back to playing like it did during its winning streak. Fox joked that his team at least began the second half of the campaign far better than it did the first half, when the Panthers were blown out by the Falcons here. But there's a lot of work to be done.

Whether the victory was the start of something big or just a tease win that is forgotten in the next few weeks, well, we'll see.

"It's always good to win," said right defensive end and team leader Mike Rucker. "But it's better to keep winning and winning and winning. And that's what we need to do."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.