TAMPA, Fla. - On the brink of what could have been a season-crushing loss, the Carolina Panthers finally established the identity they've been seeking since training camp in August.
They ran and ran and ran on a game-saving drive, unleashing their "Double Trouble" tandem of running backs to pull out a 28-21 victory against winless Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart were alternated in and out of the lineup seven times on a prolific, 16-play, 80-yard drive that lasted 8:04 and included just one pass - a 4-yarder to Steve Smith to give their star wide receiver his only catch of the day.
The grind-it-out strategy came after the Panthers blew a 14-point second-half lead by giving up touchdowns on a 97-yard kickoff return and a 26-yard interception return.
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The interception was the 10th that quarterback Jake Delhomme has thrown this season and underscored the difficulty the Panthers had all day - and all season - getting any semblance of a passing game going.
So with the score tied 21-21 and 8:33 remaining, coach John Fox turned to the run-first, ultra-physical style he loves most.
Fullback Brad Hoover described it this way: "We're going to try to slam it down your throat. If you're able to stop us, stop us. If you're not, oh well."
The Buccaneers, who entered the game ranked 28th in the NFL against the run, already had taken a pounding for 3 1/2 quarters and looked helpless to stop Carolina.
The Panthers ran the ball 15 times on the drive and had only one carry of more than 9 yards - a 10-yarder by Stewart - but seemed capable of driving 200 yards for a score if necessary.
Williams ran twice before Stewart came in for two carries. Then Williams ran twice, then Stewart three times, then Williams twice, then Stewart twice, then Williams twice.
"When you've got two good running backs and you see one go out and another one coming in, it's like, 'Aw, man, fresh legs, and I'm over here tired,' " Stewart said, describing the plight of the Bucs' defense during the drive. "It automatically does something to their psyche, I know."
Williams scored the touchdown on a 1-yard run with 29 seconds remaining, and the Panthers escaped with a win they desperately needed.
Carolina improved to 2-3 while Tampa Bay fell to 0-6.
For the game, the Panthers ran for 268 yards, the second-highest single-game rushing total in team history behind the 299 they accumulated against the Bucs last December. Their 48 rushing attempts tied for the second most in team history.
Williams (152 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries) and Stewart (110 yards and one TD on 17 carries) each went over the 100-yard mark for the first time this season.
Stewart said the Panthers worked extensively on their running game in practice last week and that, against the Bucs, "a couple of runs felt like it was in practice."
There was nothing easy or simple about this win, however.
The Panthers fell behind 7-0 in the first quarter when Tampa Bay reeled off three consecutive big plays - a 29-yard pass from Josh Johnson to Sammie Stroughter, followed by runs of 10 and 21 yards by Cadillac Williams, the latter for a touchdown.
But that was the only score the Panthers defense would allow the entire game.
The Panthers tied the score with DeAngelo Williams' 20-yard touchdown run in the second period, then built a 21-7 lead in the third period.
The Panthers' long, hard journey to try to get back to a .500 record resumes next Sunday at home against the 2-4 Buffalo Bills, who upset the New York Jets 16-13 in overtime Sunday.