TAMPA, Fla.- The Carolina Panthers are beginning to play more and more like championship contenders.

Stephen Davis ran for two touchdowns, Steve Smith caught his ninth TD pass of the season and Chris Gamble scored on a 61-yard interception return to lead the surging Panthers to a 34-14 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The victory was the fifth straight for Carolina (6-2), which stumbled out of the gate in September by losing two of its first three games.

The Panthers also have won five in a row in their bitter NFC South rivalry with Tampa Bay (5-3), which fell out of a first-place tie with Carolina and Atlanta after losing for the third time in four games.

Smith scored on a 35-yard pass from Jake Delhomme in the fourth quarter, while Carolina’s defense forced four turnovers and sacked Chris Simms five times to ruin the young quarterback’s second start of the season for Tampa Bay.

Davis scored on a 4-yard run that defensive end Mike Rucker set up by recovering Carnell “Cadillac” Williams’ fumble. Rucker also sacked Simms to force a third-quarter fumble that led to one of John Kasay’s two field goals for the Panthers.

Delhomme’s 61-yard completion to Ricky Proehl was the big play in five-play, 90-yard drive that Davis finished with a 1-yard run that made 17-7 in the second quarter. Smith’s TD made it 34-7 and gave the speedy receiver his sixth 100-yard game of the season.

Smith, coming off an 11-catch, 201-yard performance against Minnesota, finished with five receptions for 106 yards.

Simms completed 25 of 41 passes for 259 yards and two interceptions. The son of former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms threw a 50-yard TD pass to Joey Galloway in the second quarter, and Mike Alstott added a 1-yard TD run in the fourth quarter for Tampa Bay.

Simms also struggled in his first start of the season for the injured Brian Griese, throwing two interceptions and losing a fourth-quarter fumble in a 15-10 loss at San Francisco the previous week.

The 49ers sacked him five times, and the Bucs were unable to ease the burden on the third-year pro by running the ball.

It was much the same story against Carolina, which took away the running game by first containing Williams and then building a 24-7 lead that forced Simms into a situation in which he had to pass on nearly every down.

Williams was held to 29 yards on 11 carries in his second game since returning from foot and hamstring injuries that kept him out of two games. Since becoming the first player in NFL history to begin his career with three consecutive 100-yard days rushing, the rookie has been limited to 62 yards on 35 attempts in his last three games.

Delhomme was 11-of-18 for 216 yards and no interceptions. Davis rushed for 48 yards on 12 carries.

AP-ES-11-06-05 1626EST


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