TAMPA, Fla. The Carolina Panthers are one step closer to overcoming a horrendous start and making NFL history.
No team has ever lost seven of its first eight games and rallied to make the playoffs, but the defending NFC champions have a chance after beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 37-20 Sunday to keep pace with New Orleans for a wild-card berth.
The Panthers (7-8) won for the sixth time in seven games and can earn the last wild-card spot in the weak NFC by beating the Saints (7-8) at home next Sunday.
''We've given ourselves another opportunity next week. We play another division foe at our place and we'll see how it all settles,'' Carolina coach John Fox said.
Jake Delhomme threw for 214 yards and four touchdowns, two of them to Muhsin Muhammad, who had his seventh 100-yard game and set single-season Carolina records for yards receiving (1,310) and TD catches (14).
Four of the six games the Panthers and Bucs have played against each other since the NFC South was formed in 2002 have been decided by seven points or less, including a 21-14 Carolina victory on Nov. 28.
But Delhomme and an opportunistic defense made sure the Panthers' fourth straight win in the series wouldn't come down to the wire.
Defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead's interception and 17-yard return for a touchdown with just under 5 minutes remaining wiped out any hope for a Tampa Bay comeback and ensured the Panthers would bounce back from a disappointing 34-31 overtime loss at Atlanta the previous week.
''That's just how we've fought all season, characteristic of this ballclub in that we just keep fighting,'' Muhammad said.
Delhomme threw TD passes of 15 and 6 yards to Muhammad and the Panthers blocked a punt to set up a field goal as the first half expired to build a 17-7 lead. Carolina marched 70 yards after the second half kickoff to go up 24-7 on Delhomme's 4-yard TD throw to Keary Colbert.
The Bucs (5-10) lost for the third straight time since routing the NFC South champion Falcons 27-0 in a game they hoped would be a springboard for a strong stretch run that would carry them to the playoffs after an 0-4 start.
Instead, Tampa Bay is assured its worst finish since 1996.
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