CHARLOTTE, N.C. - With his eyeblack mixing with sweat and running down his face, Chris Hovan jogged into the Buccaneer locker room looking like the Marlon Brando character in 'Apocalypse Now.'
Then, like Col. Kurtz, he chose his words carefully.
'They are rightly the champs, and we will give them their due credit,' Hovan said of next weekend's trip to Indianapolis. 'But we want them. We want to play the best.'
After three consecutive dominant performances, Tampa Bay's overhauled defense believes it is ready for the challenge of Peyton Manning and a Colts attack averaging 33 points per game during a 4-0 start.
The Panthers averaged a mere 3.5 yards on their 67 snaps Sunday in a 20-7 loss that left quarterback David Carr shaken and stirred. In his first start with Carolina, the ex-Texan had only 48 yards passing midway through the fourth quarter before padding his numbers.
'Our swarming defense has returned - and it's back with a vengeance,' Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber said after Carr was sacked three times and intercepted once as Sunday's replacement for injured Bucs nemesis Jake Delhomme.
Carolina's first nine possessions resulted in seven punts, a fumble and an interception.
It took a 24-yard scoring pass from Carr to DeAngelo Williams with 23 seconds remaining for the Panthers to avoid their first shutout since 2002 and deny Tampa Bay the best back-to-back defensive showing in franchise history in terms of fewest points allowed.
Playing with only five defensive starters from the 4-12 team that finished last in the NFC South in 2006, the Bucs limited Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith to five catches for 32 yards and never allowed Carr to get comfortable.
'The pass rush is getting better, and we're playing really hard,' said first-year defensive line coach Larry Coyer, who spent the past seven seasons in Denver. 'This game meant a lot. It was a big step for us, a divisional game against a good team on the road. It's been unbelievable for me through the first month to work with a bunch of players busting their butts.'
As usual, Tampa Bay's defensive contributions came from everywhere.
Phillip Buchanon, filling in for injured Brian Kelly at left cornerback, led the Bucs with six tackles and always seemed to be in the right position to make a play. Safety Jermaine Phillips added five stops and his second pick in as many weeks, while backup tackle Greg Peterson registered a sack and a fumble recovery.
'We're doing our job, but the best defense is a good offense - and those guys are unbelievable,' defensive end Greg Spires said after the Bucs maintained possession for 34:40 behind an 189-yard ground assault. 'Everything's clicking right now, and we're not on the field very much. Everybody's together, everybody's accountable, and when you have a whole team doing that, it's hard to stop.'