CHARLOTTE -- Sure Tampa Bay's going to ease into the postseason.
But the Buccaners have earned the right.
After finding stability at quarterback and improving what had always been a good defense, the Bucs are cruising heading into Sunday's regular-season finale against the Panthers, having already clinched the NFC South Division.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said Jeff Garcia might not play much, if at all, this week, but the veteran quarterback has given them confidence in a position they had mostly questions about.
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"It's easy to say what he has meant," Gruden said. "He has come in here and given us stability at a position where you have to have consistent, quality play from to compete and to win. He has made a lot of plays, not only athletically and with his experience, but he has made a lot of creative plays, as well. He has avoided the rush and made some great audibles, he has protected the football and he has really competed for us.
"He has sent some life through the football team and certainly through our offense. He is one of the reasons we have been able to compete week-in and week-out."
The Bucs struggled last year, ranking 31st in scoring offense while passing the reins from Chris Simms to Bruce Gradkowski to Tim Rattay, a group that combined for a 66.2 passer rating and more interceptions (18) than touchdowns (14).
This year, Garcia's the sixth-highest rated passer in the league (94.6), with 26 touchdowns against just 15 picks.
But on the other side of the ball, the picks and the turnovers are coming more often, as well, with 33 takeaways compared to last year's 20, giving the offense many more opportunities.
The Bucs brought in a number of new players for their defense, speed guys such as linebacker Cato June, and first-round defensive end Gaines Adams, along with veteran defensive end Kevin Carter.
"First, it's been the consistent play throughout our football team that has really helped us in terms of not turning the ball over and defensively getting more turnovers," veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "The depth of our football team is a lot greater this year than past years. Guys have gotten hurt and other gentlemen have stepped in and done well. I attribute those things to us turning our season around."
• NOT AS HOT? Brooks said that the game meaning nothing doesn't diminish a rivalry that has reached epic proportions.
Panthers defensive tackle Kris Jenkins once said it was like the "Crips and the Bloods," referring to the respective blue and red uniforms, and Brooks said the losses don't change that.
"Our team being in the playoffs, and Carolina being out doesn't take any mustard off of the hot dog," Brooks said. "We are franchises that have, in my opinion, one of the fiercest rivalries since we aligned divisions. It is always good football. Despite the records, we are going to play each other tough. That is always reiterated here from our standpoint.
"This is as good as it is going to get in terms of intensity, physicality and respect."
• EXTRA POINTS: Injured quarterback Brett Basanez was doing some throwing on the side Friday as he recovers from wrist surgery.
He was injured in the preseason, starting the quarterback follies for the Panthers this year, and is expected to be part of the mix next season.
They had an unexpected visitor, as well, as former defensive end Al Wallace dropped by. He signed with Buffalo after the Panthers didn't offer to bring him back, but spent the year on injured reserve after a preseason shoulder problem.
The Panthers listed safety Chris Harris (neck) as doubtful for Sunday, but put quarterback Vinny Testaverde (age) and tackle Jordan Gross (ankle) as probable.