TAMPA, Fla. -- Another tremendous defensive effort vaulted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into sole first place in the NFC South.
Brad Johnson threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns, and the NFL's top-ranked defense forced four turnovers as the Bucs beat the Panthers 23-10 Sunday.
Tampa Bay (8-2) is off to its best-ever start after 10 games. With the New Orleans losing 24-17 at Atlanta, the Bucs sit alone atop the division heading into crucial games the next two weeks against Green Bay and the Saints.
Carolina (3-7) has blown fourth-quarter leads in five of its losses, but Tampa Bay took care of this one before it got that far.
Johnson threw a 1-yard TD pass to Keyshawn Johnson in the second quarter, then snapped a 10-10 tie with a 22-yarder to Keenan McCardell late in the third quarter. Martin Gramatica added field goals of 20, 32 and 41 yards for the Bucs.
Rodney Peete threw a 20-yard TD pass to Steve Smith to give Carolina a 7-0 lead. But he didn't have much success the rest of the day, finishing 22-of-38 for 205 yards with three interceptions.
Tampa Bay, which leads the league with 21 interceptions, also had four sacks and recovered one of Peete's two fumbles.
The Bucs beat the Panthers without scoring a touchdown last month, but Tampa Bay needed three fourth-quarter field goals to overcome a six-point deficit and win 12-9. Neither team's starting quarterback played that day, with Peete out after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery and Brad Johnson sitting out with a fractured rib and a stomach virus.
While neither club has been an offensive juggernaut, Peete clearly makes a difference for Carolina, and Johnson's steady play has been a big part of Tampa Bay's success. Each player directed a long touchdown drive in the first half, and their teams kicked field goals for a 10-10 halftime tie.
Tampa Bay turnovers set up all of Carolina's scoring.
The Panthers marched 70 yards to take a 7-0 lead after Mike Rucker forced and recovered Aaron Stecker's fumble to stop a promising drive on the Bucs' first possession. Rucker set up Shayne Graham's 42-yard second-quarter field goal as well, recovering Michael Pittman's fumble at the Tampa Bay 29.
The Panthers sacked Rob Johnson six times in their loss to Tampa Bay on Oct. 27, but they weren't nearly as effective rushing the passer Sunday. Brad Johnson was sacked twice, once by rookie Julius Peppers, who played while appealing his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
The sack was the league-leading 11th for Peppers, whose agent said the player tested positive for a banned substance in a dietary supplement.