Smith's return, Kasay's FG give Panthers first victory

TAMPA, Fla. (ESPN.com news services) -- Steve Smith made his return for the Carolina Panthers, but it was another reliable veteran who came through in the clutch.

John Kasay booted his fourth field goal of the game, a 46-yarder with two seconds remaining, to lift the Panthers to a crucial 26-24 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

And though Keyshawn Johnson has been with the Panthers only a few months, his teammates have already picked up on one thing about the ultraconfident, loquacious receiver.

"Win or lose, Keyshawn's going to have the last word," Smith said after Johnson scored two touchdowns and had a clutch catch to help set up the winning field goal against his former team.

Smith returned after missing Carolina's first two games with a sore hamstring and had seven catches for 112 yards.

Johnson insisted returning to Raymond James Stadium for the first time in three years was more about Carolina (1-2) getting its first victory than him getting personal satisfaction against former coach Jon Gruden.

He got both, thanks to Jake Delhomme, who led a last-minute drive that produced Kasay's fourth long field goal of the day with 2 seconds remaining.

"However it happened, it happened. We won the football game. That's the most important thing to me," Johnson said. "I'm not really caught up in any other hoopla. That was four years ago. ... I just care about helping this team get to a championship."

Chris Gamble intercepted Simms' first pass of the game to set up Delhomme's 31-yard TD pass to Johnson on the next play. Johnson later scored on a 4-yard run to put the Panthers up 17-0 in the second quarter.

Kasay kicked field goals of 51, 50 and 49 yards before booting a 46-yarder to win it. Delhomme drove into Tampa Bay territory with help from a 14-yard pass interference penalty and an 18-yard completion to Johnson, then got in scoring range by scrambling for 12 yards on fourth-and-7 to the Bucs 30.

Panthers coach John Fox said much of what the Panthers did with Johnson was dictated by Tampa Bay's defense -- not Johnson lobbying for a big role in the game plan.

"When you're 0-2 ... it wouldn't have mattered who we were playing," Fox said. "We were going to lean on Keyshawn big."

Johnson finished with seven receptions for 97 yards.

Battered and battling dehydration, Simms rebounded from a shaky first quarter to get the Bucs (0-3) back in the game.

He threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Joey Galloway in the second quarter, then took advantage of three second-half turnovers to put his team into a position to win.

Simms was unavailable for interviews after the game, instead spending extra time with trainers and doctors. He left for two plays in the second half because of cramps, but also appeared groggy after taking some big hits.

"He got hit early and he hurt his ribs. We don't know the extent of that, but he played hard and showed a lot of grit," Gruden said. "He is a very sore and tired man right now."

As it turned out, the 26-year-old was injured much more seriously than the team originally thought. He was hospitalized a few blocks from the stadium and had a spleenectomy, though it remained unclear at what point in the game the injury occurred.

"Chris is doing well and we anticipate a full recovery," team physician Dr. Joe Diaco said in a brief statement.

Simeon Rice forced two third-quarter fumbles for Tampa Bay. Shelton Quarles forced a third to set up Matt Bryant's 28-yard field goal for a 24-23 Bucs lead with five minutes remaining.

Delhomme, who was 22-of-36 for 272 yards, launched the winning drive from his own 23 with 1:41 left. Two plays before Kasay clinched it, the Panthers quarterback kept the march alive with his 12-yard run.

"He made a real instinctive play," Gruden said. "He saw that the middle of the field was vulnerable and made a play that you would expect an NFL veteran quarterback of his caliber to make at times like that."

If both teams hadn't lost their first two games, Johnson returning to Tampa to face his former team and the coach he couldn't get along with after winning a Super Bowl would have been a compelling story line in the days leading up to the game.

But with both teams desperately needing to win, nearly all of the focus was on what it would take to jump-start the season and avoid falling into a hole that few clubs have been able to escape.

Since 1990, just three teams -- the 1992 Chargers, 1995 Lions and 1998 Bills -- have overcome losing their first three games of the season to earn a postseason berth.

The Bucs fell to 0-3 for the 10th time. The only time they've rebounded to make the playoffs was with a 5-4 record during the strike-shortened 1982 season.

Johnson helped the 2002 Bucs win the Super Bowl in their first season under Gruden, but the two never had a cozy relationship. The rift intensified in 2003, eventually leading to the receiver being deactivated for the last six games and traded to Dallas for Galloway.

Johnson's rushing touchdown was the third of his career, and the first since 1998 when he scored on the ground once during the regular season and again in the playoffs for the New York Jets.

Game notes
Simms was 13-of-24 for 139 yards. ... Rookie Bruce Gradkowski replaced Simms when he left the game and completed his only pass for 16 yards. ... Johnson needs 1 yard to become the 26th player in NFL history with 10,000 receiving.

Information from SportsTicker and The Associated Press was used in this report.


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