CHARLOTTE -- For seven years now, they've gone head-to-head twice a year. They've shepherded their teams through the entire existence of the NFC South. They've both brought previously unknown success to their teams.
They couldn't be much more different.
Carolina Panthers coach John Fox and Tampa Bay boss Jon Gruden share an agent and a division but not much else.
Fox was the scrappy strong safety who devises defenses and has built a team designed to hit hard. Gruden's the former quarterback, foot on the gas in an effort to outsmart opponents.
Fox works the room like the emcee at a Friar's Club roast, while Gruden is more likely holed up fuming somewhere.
With his players, Fox is a pat on the back and a "How's the family?" Gruden is more prone to scowling.
For all the similar success the teams have had since the dawn of the division (Carolina has won the most games since 2002, Tampa the most division titles and the only Super Bowl), there's been little cross-pollination. Only five players have played for both Fox and Gruden, and they generally laugh when asked about the differences between the two.
"They definitely have different styles," said Bucs defensive tackle Jovan Haye, barely able to contain himself.
He described Fox as "more laid-back," while his current boss was "more in-your-face."
"Hey, it's just a different style," Haye said, trying to be as polite as possible. "Who you prefer depends on the athlete. Some people like more of a rah-rah guy, and some people like the other way."
It's much the same story you get from Panthers return man Mark Jones, who spent three years with the Bucs.
"They're both different," Jones said. "Gruden loves his offense, loves to see things take shape. Fox, I can approach him and just talk about life. I think Gruden's unlike that. They both want to win.
"I enjoy playing for both of them, but moreso now with coach Fox."
Current players are naturally hesitant to go overboard ripping one or praising the other, but there are others who are less constrained.
"Everybody always thinks I hated Gruden," ESPN analyst Keyshawn Johnson said. "I enjoyed working with him, believe it or not. I mean, we had a misunderstanding at a personal level, which I think was partly because he was a young coach and didn't understand me. But as an X and O guy, he's one of the best going."
"He truly was fun for me to be around."
You'd never know that by the way his tenure ended, with Johnson effectively banished in 2004 before he was sent packing to Dallas. After two years with the Cowboys, he was summoned to Charlotte upon the recommendation of then-offensive coordinator Dan Henning.
Johnson only lasted a season with the Panthers, but said he didn't have a problem with Fox, either.
"I liked working for Fox too, I just wish I had gotten more than 16 games there," he said. "He was always with the defense though, so I didn't get to know him the same way. He didn't do anything with the offense except tell Dan to run the ball."
Johnson, like many, acknowledged that the personalities of Fox and Gruden are worlds apart.
Of Gruden, Johnson described a coach extremely concerned with appearance and creating plans.
"He relishes those moments the cameras would focus on him making all those faces," Johnson said of Gruden. "He's like this mad scientist of offense, spending all those hours in a lab trying to defeat your defense."
His relationship with Fox was more limited, but Johnson said "he was pretty cool with me."
"When Gruden would get on me, I'd just tune him out and that was what got under his skin," Johnson said. "Fox would say a couple things to me and then go about his business."
Strategically, Johnson wouldn't declare an edge, but given his penchant for getting the ball (perhaps you've heard), it sounds like he leans toward Gruden.
He recalled a week in 2002 when he destroyed Minnesota (nine catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns), when he felt like Gruden was drawing plays up to prove he could make Johnson shine.
"He was telling people, 'I'm going to get this (guy) off this week,'" Johnson said. "So he put me in all these positions to make plays, did things to get me into a good spot, with the goal to make sure I knew he could. He played the whole thing out in his mind just to prove a point."
Coincidentally, Johnson said he was occasionally confused by Fox's tendency to make things more complicated than they had to be.
"I think back to the Minnesota game with them," he said, referring to the infamous punt-throwback debacle in 2006 that cost the Panthers a game. "There were decisions he's make that I didn't understand, just some silly (stuff) he'd do at times, things he didn't have to do but did."
Granted, Johnson's own need for attention might compromise his ability to fairly judge his employers. In Tampa, it often seemed that he and Gruden taunted each other for sport, while Fox let Henning deal with Johnson.
Though they go about it in different ways, both get high marks for the way they deal with their players.
Even though he can lean on his charges (particularly his alter-ego quarterbacks), Gruden also knows when to pull back. Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said that personality quirks aside, Gruden also has a way to relate to his team.
"Interesting is a good word. Interesting's a great word," Barber said of working for Gruden. "But what I'll give him is that he does understand players. He really has locked in over the last couple of years on the needs of players and how best to prepare us and what's best for us going into Sunday. Evidenced by the fact that during our regular game week, we won't practice in pads or helmets on Wednesday. He kind of takes it off of us and makes it a mental day. And then we get back to work on Thursday and Friday.
"He really has a feel, especially with this team, for what it takes for us to win."
That gets said about Fox as well. Two weeks ago, he surprised his players by stowing the pads for practice, something he is ordinarily loath to do. Normally, they would practice in heavy gear throughout the season, partly because Fox is superstitious and partly because he thinks it helps legitimize his "tough and smart," credo.
But the biggest difference between the two is clearly their personality.
Fox has always maintained an approachability with his players, even though they practice heavier and harder than most teams.
"When it's time to work, we work," Jones said. "When it's time to have fun, we have fun."
Panthers backup quarterback Josh McCown hasn't played for Gruden, but his younger brother Luke does now.
He grinned when asked about Gruden's reputation for being hard on his position, nodding agreement.
"For quarterbacks, it's a grind," the elder McCown said. "He stays on you. He tries to grow the player playing there and make them better. My brother said he's learned a ton of X and Os from him and speaks highly of him in that regard."
And like others, McCown said those personal differences are significant.
"People do it different ways," said McCown, who has played for his share of coaches in a journeyman career. "For me, I appreciate that. When you get a bunch of guys who appreciate that environment, it bodes well on Sunday. Not that asking how the family's doing matters as to how they execute, but if you're inclined that way, it can work for you.
"Fox is very personable, wants to know how lives are going. I tell these guys here, if you like that, you need to win and keep this guy around. Because it's not like this everywhere. This is a great environment to come to work in."
CHARLOTTE -- The lights and all the extra cameras and attention are one thing.
But for the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the impact of this one is simple.
Tied atop the NFC South at 9-3, the winner takes the inside track at the division title and a home game in the playoffs, likely a bye. The loser is more likely to fight for one of the two wild card berths, which mean road games.
"It's an important game for us in terms of positioning ourselves for the playoffs," cornerback Ken Lucas said. "Right now, we're the fifth seed, and we could win this game and jump up to the second seed. This game is so important to us in so many different ways.
"We've got to go out and take care of our business and just continue doing the things we've been doing at home, and that's going out there and winning every game."
The Panthers are 6-0 at Bank of America Stadium this year, a remarkable turnaround from their history, since they were better on the road than at home under John Fox until a few weeks ago.
They also have the backhanded benefit of having been smacked around at Tampa in October, a 27-3 disaster that left them emotionally raw and physically sore.
But odds are, barring a major collapse, both these teams are in the playoffs, so they're looking for positioning and tiebreaker advantages today. The Panthers have the tougher remaining schedule of the two, with Denver at home next week and then two road games to close the year, at the New York Giants and New Orleans.
The Bucs go to Atlanta next week, then finish with home games against West Coasters San Diego and Oakland (who are a combined 8-18).
That's why the Panthers know they have to handle their own business tonight, because they're unlikely to get help from others.
"That's the great thing about this time of year," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "If you put yourself in this position, they're always big. That's what you play for. And it just so happens you're on a big stage on Monday night. As players, we're 9-3, they're 9-3, what a great way, you've given yourself a chance, you're not eliminated out of anything, you're playing for a ton, and this is why you play the game. I mean, this is it."
"You feel it when you come to the stadium. You just know, there's just a buzz around the stadium when it's those types of games. That's something I think when you really feel it, and that's a great thing. You know, we have a couple guys on the team, Donte Curry, his eighth year, most wins he's ever had in the NFL is nine, it was eight before this week. Josh McCown, same thing. It's so hard to win, enjoy it, keep working and doing what you're doing and just try enjoy yourself while you can."
The attention can be overwhelming if they let it.
ESPN has descended on Charlotte like the Allies at Normandy, bringing what team officials estimate is four or five times the broadcasting equipment a normal Sunday game would. They've also extensively and exhaustingly used the week to promote their signature game -- like Christopher Columbus, they've discovered the NFC South now.
Nevermind the fact the division is 22-2 at home this year, best in the NFL, or that some of the hardest football in the league is being played here.
"Yeah. The whole South in general," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said when asked if the division was lacking respect. "Part of that is because of the attention paid to the East, and deservedly so. They have the Super Bowl champion. They have one of the greatest accumulations of players in Dallas. I think everybody expected Philadelphia to be a little bit better. There was a lot of attention paid to those guys at the beginning of the season.
"We literally got no press. There was nobody down here except when Brett Favre was reportedly coming here during the preseason. We've kind of methodically gone about our business, just like Carolina, and racked up nine wins. As you mentioned, Monday night the eyes of the country get to see this division at its best. I think it will be huge for both teams and how important this division is going to be in the month of December."
Bucs coach Jon Gruden laughed when asked about the division's lack of attention, not quite sure why there hasn't always been more.
"I really don't pay attention, to be honest with you. Every channel is a talk show now," he said. "I don't know what they are saying. I just know it's hard to be 9-3. It's hard to have nine wins before the final quarter of the season. I don't really get all tied up into what people are saying or predicting. It will drive people crazy if you let it.
"It's a great rivalry. If people don't know about it then that's their own agenda. We have had some great games, big games. Both teams obviously play their hearts out. They have a lot of football character on both teams. I know the Panthers are very well coached. They have been in this stretch before. They have some big-time players that this atmosphere will bring out the best in both teams I think. Hopefully it will be a good show for everybody.
Panthers coach John Fox has been trying to downplay the show all week, leaning back on one of his favorite aphorisms.
"I know it sounds cliché, but it gets bigger on the outside," Fox said. "The reality is we have to execute, and that starts with preparation. We've had an excellent week of preparation and we've still got time left. We're not done preparing. No question that they're all exciting; they should be exciting and this one will be."
The key for the Panthers is not letting that external excitement creep into their room. Not that they need any extra motivation.
"It's a Monday night game, a division game, for first in the division," running back DeAngelo Williams said. "The fans are really jacked up about it. For us, it's a Monday night game, prime time, a game that we want to win.
"We're playing for the same common goals they are. So it will be our will vs. their will."
"Yeah, you're a little extra amped," fullback Brad Hoover admitted. "A lot of times it is bigger on the outside but this is big because of the ramifications.
"If we win, we advance and they take a step back, and vice versa for them."