CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers now have the edge in the NFC South, but more importantly, they have their edge back.
The Panthers defeated Tampa Bay 38-23 on Monday night, doing so on the back of a running game that is becoming perhaps the best in franchise history, and a defense that woke up a little after a monthlong slumber.
Now 10-3, they have the inside track toward the NFC South title, a game up on the Bucs. They also avenged perhaps their ugliest loss of the season, a 27-3 whipping in Tampa on Oct. 12 which served as motivation throughout the long week.
Though there are three games left in the regular season, the win helped the Panthers in their goal of earning home games in the postseason, and perhaps many of them. If they can get through this week's visit from Denver, it sets up their Dec. 21 trip to New York with the NFC's top seed and home-field advantage on the line.
They'll gladly take that, as they improved to 7-0 at Bank of America Stadium in front of a record crowd of 74,113.
But the big record was the one they authored on the ground. The Panthers rushed for a franchise-best 299 yards after going for a season-low 40 in the Oct. 12 embarrassment at Tampa.
The previous single-game record was the 264 yards they hung on Detroit, but this one happened against a good opponent. The Bucs had allowed just one rushing touchdown all year, but the Panthers peppered them for four, with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart scoring twice each.
Williams finished with 186 yards and Stewart 115.
That Carolina the defense stood the way it did was the remarkable part, after an unremarkable third quarter of the season.
The Panthers had given up at least 130 rushing yards in four straight games since the bye and had allowed 98 points in their previous three games.
But none of that mattered Monday, as they held the Bucs in check throughout the night with a defensive plan designed to contain quarterback Jeff Garcia. He had beaten them in five straight starts going back to his days in San Francisco and Philadelphia. But by keeping him in the pocket -- and sacking him five times -- they were able to contain an offense that had its moments, but not enough of them.
They were also the beneficiaries of some good fortune early, as Tampa kicker Matt Bryant plunked a 40-yard attempt off the left goal post, a difference which was huge in a toughly played first half.
But after the Bucs got another field goal to tie the game at 3, the Panthers turned back to their foundation.
They drove 73 yards for a touchdown in eight plays, only one of them a pass.
That set the early tone, as they closed out the first half by dropping Garcia for two quick sacks to go into the break with a 10-3 lead.
The Buccaneers tied the game quickly in the third quarter, following the second Delhomme interception of the night, but they needed a little help.
Antonio Bryant hit the Panthers for a 50-yard touchdown catch, made possible when he clocked Panthers cornerback Ken Lucas in the head with his right hand. That knocked Lucas off-balance and unable to recover as Bryant cruised in for the score.
But the Panthers answered that one just as rapidly, as they finally were able to do something through the air. Delhomme locked in with Steve Smith, eventually hitting him for a 38-yard touchdown which put the Panthers up 17-10 with 8:19 left in the third quarter.
But Bryant wasn't done, this time getting behind Chris Gamble for a 39-yard gain, which set up Cadillac Williams' 4-yard touchdown, which tied it again with 3:37 left in the third.
The Panthers again responded on the ground, with Stewart's second touchdown coming from 4 yards out with 13:21 left in the game.
What they needed the most, however, was a stop, and again Julius Peppers provided. On third and 8, Garcia was looking and looking, but Peppers chased him down from behind with a swipe, breaking the run of offense just in time.
Fittingly enough, that enabled them to run some more.
Williams took the next snap 41 yards, and Stewart later added a 30-yarder which put both over 100 yards in a game for the second time this season. Then, Williams capped it with a 16-yard touchdown, giving the Panthers a 31-17 lead with 8:30 left.
Tampa struck again, with Bryant (nine catches, 200 yards and two touchdowns) making an acrobatic one-handed touchdown snag with 2:29 left, but Peppers blocked the extra point to leave it at 31-23. Linebacker Jon Beason then recovered the onside kick, allowing the Panthers to salt the game away.
They'd have been content to run out the clock, but on a third-down play after the Bucs used their final time out, Williams popped out for a 36-yard score.