Bucs rest starters, fall to Panthers 31-23

Published 9:03 pm Monday, December 31, 2007

By By FRED GOODALL, AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. — Jon Gruden bristled at the suggestion that he may have set his Tampa Bay Buccaneers up for failure in the playoffs by taking a cautious approach to the last two weeks of the regular season.
The Bucs (9-7) dropped their finale 31-23 to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, resting most of their starters in hopes of opening the postseason next Sunday at 1 p.m. against the New York Giants with as healthy a roster as possible.
DeAngelo Williams rushed for 121 yards and two touchdowns to help Carolina give Vinny Testaverde a nice send-off
Tampa Bay, which clinched its division with two weeks remaining, has lost two straight and three of four overall. Gruden insisted the NFC South champions have not diminished their chances of succeeding in the playoffs.
Matt Moore threw for 174 yards and two touchdowns in his third pro start for Carolina (7-9), which allowed the retiring 44-year-old Testaverde to take the last snap in the same city where he began his NFL career in 1987.
Tampa Bay (9-7) was prevented from joining the 1999 St. Louis Rams as the only teams since 1970 to go unbeaten in division play the year after going winless.
With Moore, a rookie free agent, at quarterback, Carolina won two of its last three games — all against division champions. Now, the Panthers will find out if it was enough to ensure coach John Fox will return next season.
Asked if he has been informed of whether he will be retained, Fox said, ‘‘I’m not going to comment.’’
Williams scored on runs of 1 and 32 yards, and Moore threw TD passes of 2 yards to Christian Fauria and 20 yards to Dante Rosario for Carolina, which beat Seattle and lost to Dallas in Moore’s first two starts.
Testaverde, the first pick in the 1987 draft by the Bucs, entered the game after the Panthers stopped Tampa Bay’s final drive on downs with 35 seconds remaining. He received polite applause from what was left of a crowd of 65,609, then took a knee on the last play.
The veteran of 21 seasons hugged his wife as he left the field, saying, ‘‘That’s it. It’s all over.’’
Tampa Bay played without seven starters, five on offense.
Luke McCown started in place of Jeff Garcia at quarterback, and running back Earnest Graham also got the day off, finishing 102 yards shy of 1,000 after entering training camp as the fourth-string tailback.
Moore led touchdown drives of 72 and 68 yards, and Ryne Robinson redeemed himself for fumbling a punt return deep in Carolina territory by running a kickoff back 60 yards to set up a 19-yard field goal that put the Panthers up 17-13 at the half.
The Bucs trailed mostly because of McCown’s inability to get them in the end zone after Phillip Buchanon’s interception and short return to the Panthers 18 and Robinson’s fumble at the Carolina 17.
The fourth-year quarterback led a 98-yard drive — longest in Bucs history — and erased the halftime deficit on a short pass that Michael Bennett turned into a 23-yard TD. But it didn’t take the Panthers long to regain the lead 24-20 on Williams’ first touchdown.
Tampa Bay cut it to 24-23 on Matt Bryant’s third field goal before Williams, who carried 20 times, broke his 32-yarder around the right side to put Carolina in front by 8 with 6:24 to go.
Testaverde, one of four starting QBs the injury-riddled Panthers used this season, announced Saturday that he was retiring after the game. In six starts for Carolina, he was 94-of-172 for 952 yards, five TDs and six interceptions.
The 1986 Heisman Trophy winner ranks sixth in league history for career attempts (6,701), completions (3,787) and yards passing (45,233). He had 275 touchdown passes and 267 interceptions and holds the NFL record by throwing at least one TD pass in 21 consecutive seasons.
Fox said giving Testaverde the last snap was ‘‘the least we could do for him.’’
The old quarterback was appreciative.
Notes: Panthers DE Michael Rucker said he has not decided if he will retire. … Bucs LG Arron Sears left in the first quarter with an ankle injury and did not return. … LB Jeremiah Trotter made his first start for Tampa Bay and had eight tackles.