TAMPA, Fla. — It didn't take long for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to show their hand. On the first play from scrimmage Sunday, Carolina Panther quarterback Jake Delhomme fired a quick-hitch pass to Steve Smith along the sideline. Just as the ball got to him, Smith was flattened by cornerback Brian Kelly. Incomplete.
The Buccaneers clearly wanted to give Smith, the NFL's leading receiver, something to ponder.
As it happened, Smith and the Panthers spent the rest of the day exacting their revenge.
"One thing you better learn about Steve: The madder you make him, the better he's going to play," teammate Brentson Buckner said of Smith, who finished with five catches for 106 yards and a touchdown against the NFC's second-best pass defense. "He's like the little Hulk."
The same might be said of the Panthers (6-2), who quietly have put together the NFC's longest winning streak, collecting their fifth consecutive victory with a 34-14 thrashing of the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Only the 7-0 Indianapolis Colts have more consecutive victories than the Panthers.
Carolina got some big plays from its defense, sacking Tampa Bay's Chris Simms five times and intercepting two of his passes, one of which cornerback Chris Gamble returned for a 61-yard touchdown. It was the first defensive touchdown Carolina had scored this season.
"We just got beat by a better football team," said Simms, who, since replacing the injured Brian Griese, has been sacked 10 times in two games.
Earlier in the season, Tampa Bay (5-3) appeared to be the better team by far. The Buccaneers were 4-0, and the Panthers had lost two of their first three, sandwiching a victory over New England between losses to New Orleans and Miami. But, aided by a soft schedule, Carolina was able to regain its equilibrium -- and rise to the top of the conference. The Panthers tore off victories over Green Bay, Arizona, Detroit and Minnesota.
Sunday was the first time since Week 2 that the Panthers had defeated an opponent with a winning record. Even better for Carolina, it was able to hand the Buccaneers a loss in their NFC South opener.
"It appears we got dominated," said linebacker Derrick Brooks, whose team was 3-0 at home this season and had not given up a touchdown pass in six of its first seven games. "We're a defense, really as a team, that does not give up 34 points, and today we did.
It was Carolina's defense that set the tone, limiting Tampa Bay to 270 total yards and 44 on the ground. The Buccaneers had hoped to control the clock with rookie running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who looked good in practice last week, yet he was held to 29 yards in 11 carries.
Other than their one big play -- a 50-yard touchdown pass from Simms to Joey Galloway -- the Buccaneers were never in the game. The Panthers outscored them by identical 17-7 margins in the first and second halves.
Smith's touchdown, in the fourth quarter, gave the Panthers a 34-7 lead. To celebrate, he popped to his feet and assumed a fencing stance, using the football as an imaginary sword.
Throughout the season, Smith has sliced defenses to ribbons. Sidelined for 15 games in 2004 because of a broken leg, he has risen to the top of his profession this season, putting up better numbers than any receiver in the league. The former University High and Santa Monica College standout has shouldered a huge offensive load for the Panthers. Coming into Sunday's game, he had accounted for 34.8% of Carolina's net yards, the sixth-highest percentage in the NFL. He is the only non-running back to rank in the top 10 in percentage of team's total offense.
"You tell me one receiver out there right now that's doing the things he's doing," said Buckner, a defensive tackle. "There's some guys who are having good games, but I'm talking about somebody who can give you across the middle, the short yardage, and beat you deep at any time? And line up at punt return and be liable to break it? You name me one that's doing it."
Buckner said Smith has had an edge to him ever since he arrived with the Panthers in 2001 as a third-round pick from Utah. Selected ahead of him were some future standouts -- Santana Moss, Chad Johnson and Chris Chambers -- and a host of so-so receivers, among them Quincy Morgan, Robert Ferguson and Freddie Mitchell. Smith felt slighted that he was selected so late.
"He started off mad," Buckner said. "Since Day 1, when he walked into the Panther facility he was mad. But that's Steve. That's the competitor in him. He wanted to be the best."
But Smith says he isn't fueled by an I-told-you-so motivation.
"The only thing I want to prove is I can play," he said. "I'm not going, 'Look at me! Look what I did!' I'm just going out there having fun and making plays."
And if he gets a little mad in the process, all the better.