TAMPA, Fla. -- Jeff Garcia knows the drill.
Benched quarterbacks must wait patiently for chances to show they deserve playing time, then have to make the most of those opportunities.
The three-time Pro Bowl selection answered the call Sunday for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 27-3 victory over the Carolina Panthers, delivering exactly what they needed to climb into a tie for first place in the NFC South.
"This is just one game and we don't know what's going to happen next. But it felt great to be playing again. If we can just build on these things, we have a lot of good things to look forward to," he said.
Garcia, starting for the first time since the opener because Brian Griese is injured, threw for 173 yards and a touchdown. Warrick Dunn had his most productive day running the ball since rejoining the Bucs with 115 yards on 22 carries.
The victory, Tampa Bay's first at home against the division rival Panthers since 2002, enabled the Bucs (4-2) to pull even in the standings with Carolina (4-2), which sputtered a week after routing Kansas City 34-0.
It has been a rollercoaster year for Garcia. He led the Bucs to the playoffs in 2007, but lost his starting job last month after missing most of training camp with a calf injury and playing poorly at New Orleans in the opener.
Instead of sulking, he got healthy. He also stopped talking about his failure to receive a contract extension during the offseason and Tampa Bay's unsuccessful pursuit of Brett Favre when the former Green Bay quarterback decided to come out of retirement.
"I think the main thing as a player is that I need to play with emotion, I need to play with energy and I need to have a certain excitement about myself when I step on the football field," said Garcia, whose 2-yard TD pass to Alex Smith gave Tampa Bay an early 14-0 lead.
"If I don't have that I'm not who I need to be. It wasn't so much being away from the game for the past four weeks as much as it was realizing where I need to get myself back to where I can be successful on the football field."
With Griese out due to a sore elbow and shoulder, Garcia completed 15 of 20 passes with no interceptions to make a case for regaining the starting job.
Coach Jon Gruden said the 38-year-old will start next Sunday's home game against Seattle, noting that Griese still isn't able to throw.
"We've got a lot of respect for our quarterbacks and realize its a hard game to play when you're not healthy," Gruden said.
Earnest Graham's 1-yard scoring run made it 27-3 early in the fourth. Rookie Geno Hayes blocked a punt and returned it 22 yards for Tampa Bay's first touchdown, and Matt Bryant added field goals of 37 and 49 yards.
The defense did its job, too, intercepting Bucs nemesis Jake Delhomme three times, setting up a touchdown and stopping two other promising drives.
The Carolina quarterback entered the game 7-1 vs. Tampa Bay, including 4-0 at Raymond James Stadium, where the Panthers had not lost in five trips since 2002 -- the year the NFC South was formed.
"I don't know if its a wake-up call. We got beat," Delhomme said. "Very simply, we didn't play well and they played well."
All three of Tampa Bay's interceptions came on passes that glanced off Delhomme's intended targets.
Tanard Jackson picked off a first-quarter pass that deflected off tight end Dante Rosario, Jermaine Phillips intercepted a deep throw that receiver Muhsin Muhammad and cornerback Aqib Talib were battling for in the end zone, and Talib got the last one on a ball that went through Steve Smith's hands.
Turnovers weren't the only obstacles for the Panthers. Delhomme underthrew a wide open Smith on a 48-yard completion that easily could have gone for a 72-yard scoring pass.
"That's kind of how our day went," Carolina coach John Fox said.
As it was, Smith made a nice adjustment and caught the ball as he was falling to the ground, where Jackson touched him down at the Tampa Bay 24. The Panthers eventually settled for John Kasay's 20-yard field goal after Jonathan Stewart lost a yard on second-and-goal from the 1 and Delhomme's third-down pass was broken up in the end zone.
Delhomme was 20 of 39 for 242 yards.
Smith, who also dropped what would have been a TD pass in the final minute, finished with six catches for 112 yards. However, the Bucs limited DeAngelo Williams to 27 yards rushing on 11 carries.
"It's a letdown for us," Smith said. "You can't get away from that."
Smith has five 100-yard games in his past seven outings against Tampa Bay. ... Garcia has won five consecutive starts against Carolina, including two for the Bucs. ... Dunn, who spent the past six seasons in Atlanta and beginning his career with the Bucs, has 30 100-yard games. The Panthers defense allowed a 100-yard rusher for the first time this season.
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