CHARLOTTE -- It's not a very old rivalry, but it burns hot.
Carolina and Tampa Bay, thrown together with divisional realignment in 2002, have started what's become one of the league's better series, at least in terms of physical play and interesting storylines.
The next installment's Sunday in Tampa, where the Panthers have won five straight, but there's been nothing about the matchup you'd consider one-sided. Carolina has a 9-6 lead all-time but is just 7-5 since the division opened.
Not many have seen it from both sides, but Panthers punt returner Mark Jones spent three years with the Bucs and knows exactly where both stand.
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"I know when I was in Tampa Bay, we hated Carolina, and I'm sure we hate Tampa," he said.
Panthers coach John Fox and Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden arrived at their jobs in 2002, lending stability to the series. But so much has changed, as the Bucs won a Super Bowl the inaugural year, the Panthers followed with a trip there the next, and both have gone through slumps and recovered since.
Sunday, they're playing for first place in the division, as perhaps it should be. Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks has been emphasizing to his young teammates to expect "an all-night fight," because they usually have been.
"Both teams have some similarities," Gruden said. "I'd like to hang out with Steve Smith and some of those guys out there who are great competitors. They like to compete against the best teams and the physical teams. They look forward to those kinds of games. I know our players are that way.
"There are some similarities. Not in the plays that we run, but in philosophy. Just hard-nosed, tough defense. A running game. A physical mindset. That brings out the best in these football teams."
While the football can be sloppy at times as a result of the hard-hitting styles, the drama's always top-shelf.
From Todd Sauerbrun's foot in his mouth to Chris Simms' spleen, this series has had it all:
Panthers top moments
1. Sept. 14, 2003 -- Panthers replace Bucs as division's top dog, setting the stage for Super Bowl run by winning 12-9 in overtime. The game featured three blocked kicks by the Panthers, including an extra point with no time left in regulation that forced overtime.
"We went 15 rounds -- like the old-timers. Then, we had to go an extra round," veteran safety Mike Minter said. "It was a heavyweight boxing match. They were throwing them, we were throwing them. We had some low blows, they had some low blows.
"It came down to the last second. That's what you expect when you get two great teams battling in a situation like this."
2. Sept. 24, 2006 -- Then-Panthers receiver Keyshawn Johnson gets old team for two touchdowns early (one on a reverse), but they need John Kasay's field goal with two seconds left to escape with a 26-24 win. Quarterback Jake Delhomme saved the game with a 12-yard scramble on fourth and 7 late in the game, which set up the game-winner.
"Besides, between him and Jake, I don't know who ran the slowest rush," Smith said when asked about Johnson's return. "That reverse was slow, and that scamper that Jake had was pretty slow, as well. That was pretty neck and neck."
3. Nov. 29, 2004 -- Bucs K Martin Gramatica misses three kicks, Nick Goings continued his burst of Jim Brown-esque play, but Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers stole the show. He had a sack and returned an interception for a touchdown, but he ran down Bucs running back Michael Pittman from behind on a 68-yard screen pass to prove his athleticism in the 21-14 win.
4. Panthers clean house, sending the Raymond James Stadium crowd of 65,014 headed home early with a 34-14 win. Peppers beats Bucs right tackle Kenyatta Walker to death, with two sacks and goading him into three false starts on one possession. On the other side, DE Mike Rucker was whaling on former teammate Todd Steussie in the dominant win.
"It's always good to have the fans leave early when you're on the road," Peppers said. "That's what you try to do. That's one of our goals, to go out and take the lead early. When they do (leave), that's a good feeling."
5. Dec. 29, 2007 -- Ageless quarterback Vinny Testaverde gets to end it where it began. The Panthers' emergency plan got to take the final knees (after Matt Moore beat the Bucs' JVs), retiring after 21 years in the NFL. They had his son on the sidelines to call the play to him.
1. Nov. 6, 2005 -- Panthers cheerleaders getting to know each other in a bathroom stall, then getting arrested the night before the game. Enough said.
2. Sept. 30, 2007 -- Frustrated after a 20-7 loss in Charlotte last season, DT Kris Jenkins begins paving way out of town with an anti-Panthers screed.
"All right, I'm going to be honest," Jenkins said to a crowd of reporters, without being asked a question. "The players owe the fans an apology. I would be as upset as they are if I had to sit in the stands for four quarters and look at that garbage. I'm going to be honest with you, it was what it was, garbage.
"This is our issue with the team. As a team collectively, we have no heart, we have no energy, we have no pride."
All this from a man who trained by lifting pitchers and cheeseburgers.
3. Kicker fight. Panthers miscreant Todd Sauerbrun takes on the Gramaticas.
The former bad-boy punter triggered irony meters everywhere when he called the entire kicking family "idiots." He also once claimed to put "a hex" on Martin to miss a field goal.
"One hundred percent of the people that know him don't like him," Gramatica said.
4. Oct. 27, 2002 -- QB Randy Fasani records a clean 0.0 rating, going 5-of-18 for just 46 yards with three interceptions. Steve Smith's fumbled punt didn't help, but it will be remembered as one of the single worst passing days in NFL history.
5. Nov. 9, 2003 -- Moron fan in Bank of America stands is given a microphone, and proceeds to taunt the Bucs' D, which proceeds to pound Panthers. Running back DeShaun Foster was stopped for no gain on first down of the subsequent series, and then Delhomme was sacked twice by DE Simeon Rice on the next two plays, Tampa's first two sacks of the day. They won, but still.
Thankfully, "The Prowler" hasn't been heard from again, and the Panthers have perhaps not coincidentally stopped taking live microphones into the stands.