TAMPA, Fla. — Raheem Morris oozes enthusiasm when he talks about the maturation of his improving Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"For us, the beauty of it is that we're learning lessons," the second-year coach said after Sunday's 31-16 victory over the Carolina Panthers lifted the Bucs into a tie with idle New Orleans for second place in the NFC South — one game behind division leader Atlanta.
"I'm able to have teachable moments throughout the game, go out there and yell at people for doing some of the wrong things, and also go out there and be able to congratulate people for doing things right. That's lovely for this young team. It's fun to watch, it's fun to be around."
Second-year pro Josh Freeman threw two touchdown passes and rookie LeGarrette Blount ran for a score as the NFL's youngest team rebounded from a tough loss to the Falcons that knocked Tampa Bay out of first place in the division.
Losing to Atlanta forced Morris to back off his declaration that Tampa Bay is the best team in the NFC, but the Bucs are convinced they have the talent and resiliency necessary to remain in contention for a playoff berth.
"This team has done it throughout the season," Morris said. "We got beat bad by the Pittsburgh Steelers and we bounced back. We came out got beat bad by the New Orleans Saints and we bounced back. It's no different when you get beat by Atlanta. ... You can't have any hangovers. This team is too young for hangovers."
Freeman threw TD passes of 8 yards to Arrelious Benn and 20 yards to Kellen Winslow. Blount rushed for 91 yards and scored on a 17-yard run before Cadillac Williams put the game out of reach with a 45-yard TD burst on third-and-10 late in the fourth quarter.
The Bucs swept the season series between the NFC South rivals for the first time since 2002, the year the division was formed.
Tampa Bay won 20-7 at Carolina on Sept. 19, the only other game the Bucs won this season without Freeman leading a fourth-quarter comeback.
"A win is a win," Freeman said. "If we blow somebody out, or if we come from behind at the end, it's all about getting the W."
Rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen made his fourth start for injury-riddled Carolina (1-8), which got 100 yards rushing on 23 carries from fourth-string running back Mike Goodson.
Josh Vaughan scored on a 2-yard run and John Kasay kicked field goals of 46, 28 and 48 yards for the Panthers, who also drove to the Tampa Bay 1 in the closing seconds only to have Clausen denied the end zone on consecutive quarterback sneaks.
"I thought Jimmy played well enough to give us a chance, and I think he'll continue to improve," Carolina coach John Fox said of the second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame.
"We knew it was going to be tough sledding. Their quarterback does an outstanding job," he added. "They operate pretty smooth in the passing game, and I thought they did so today as well."
Tampa Bay started seven rookies, including Benn and fellow receiver Mike Williams, who also had a productive day. According to the Bucs, the last time a team started as many as seven rookies in a game it won, Dallas beat Jacksonville on Nov. 24, 2002.
Freeman completed 18 of 24 passes for 241 yards and no interceptions. Cadillac Williams gained 16 yards on a third-down screen pass to keep the clinching drive alive, then broke through an opening on the right side of the line and raced untouched to the end zone to end any chance of a Carolina comeback.
The Panthers played without injured running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and lacked the firepower to keep up with a Bucs offense that's become more balanced since the 247-pound Blount took on a bigger role three weeks ago.
The rookie best known for punching an opposing player after a game when he was in college at Oregon, carried five times for 73 yards on an 87-yard scoring drive that Tampa Bay covered entirely on the ground. He broke runs of 12, 24 and 17 yards before finishing with another 17-yarder that put the Bucs up 14-3 early in the second quarter.
"We came out fast, executed our game plan and did everything we planned," Blount said. "The defense came out and played well also."
Although Goodson had some success running the ball for Carolina, Clausen rarely looked to throw downfield and put pressure on the Bucs with the passing game.
The rookie's longest completion was 18 yards until he completed a 24-yarder up the sideline to Steve Smith to set up the first of two field goals Kasay kicked in the third quarter to trim Tampa Bay's lead to 21-16.
Freeman reduced the suspense, leading a fourth-quarter field goal drive that Connor Barth finished with a 32-yarder that made it 24-16 with 10 minutes remaining.
Clausen was 16 of 29 passing for 191 yards and no interceptions. He was sacked twice.
"When you're in a close game like that, field goals are not going to win a game for you," Clausen said. "When you get down to the red zone, you need to put seven points on the board."