CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Given a national stage, the Carolina Panthers made a pretty good case to be included among the NFL's top teams.
Running all over Tampa Bay with their emerging tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers seized control of the competitive NFC South with a 38-23 win over the Buccaneers on Monday night.
Williams rushed for a career-high 186 yards and two touchdowns, Stewart added 115 yards and two more scores and the Panthers set a team record for yards rushing for the second time in a month.
And this time it was against a team that came in having allowed only one rushing TD all season.
The Panthers (10-3) avenged their worst loss of the season and grabbed the top spot in the division for themselves, moving one game ahead of the Buccaneers (9-4).
The Monday nighter featuring the top teams in the NFC South was billed as a chance for the division to emerge from the shadow of the tough NFC East.
The overlooked contenders played even through three quarters, before the Panthers wore down the Buccaneers' highly regarded defense in the final period behind their emerging stars in the backfield.
Steve Smith added nine catches for 117 yards and a touchdown, and the Panthers overcame Jake Delhomme's two interceptions behind their dominating ground game and an effective second-half defensive performance.
The Panthers moved within a game of the New York Giants for the best record in the NFC. At the Giants in two weeks, the Panthers — yes the Panthers — hold their own destiny for the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. The Buccaneers wasted a career day from Antonio Bryant, who caught nine passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns, including an outstanding one-handed TD grab with 2:29 left. Matt Bryant's extra-point attempt after Antonio Bryant's final score was blocked by Julius Peppers. The Panthers then recovered the onside kick, and Williams scored his 13th touchdown — breaking Stephen Davis' single-season team record — to put it away.
It was a frustrating night for the Bucs, who had roughed up Carolina 27-3 in October. A win would have given them control of the division.
Tampa Bay recovered from its customary poor start to make it a game heading into the fourth quarter.
In his first game back in Carolina since suffering a career-threatening knee injury 14 months ago, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams had a 4-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter to tie it at 17.
Williams and Stewart then took over.
Stewart rumbled over tackles for an 18-yard gain before his 4-yard TD run with 13:21 left put the Panthers ahead to stay.
After Peppers sacked Jeff Garcia to end the Buccaneers' next drive, Williams and Stewart dazzled.
Williams gained 41 yards, Stewart picked up 3 and 30, and then Williams raced 16 yards for the decisive four-play TD drive.
The Buccaneers continued their woes in the red zone in the first half. Entering with the second-worst touchdown conversion rate in the league, the Buccaneers couldn't punch it in from the 2 after Bryant's 52-yard catch.
After Matt Bryant atoned for hitting left upright on a 40-yard field goal earlier by kicking a 20-yarder, the Panthers went on the game's first TD drive.
Williams became only the third player in Carolina's 14-year history to surpass 1,000 yards rushing in a season when he rumbled 40 yards up the middle. That set up Stewart's 2-yard TD run with 1:56 before halftime to give Carolina a 10-3 lead.
Carolina finished with 299 yards rushing, surpassing the team-record 264 it had last month against Detroit.