TAMPA — Who knew Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad had another Pro Bowl season left in him at age 31? Well, he did, for one.

It was just a matter of opportunity. Steve Smith became quarterback Jake Delhomme’s go-to receiver last year. Then Smith broke his leg in this season’s opener.

Muhammad was expected to be on his way out after this season, and he still might be because of his $12.5 million salary-cap figure for 2005. But, lately, he’s been playing like he’s worth the price. During Carolina’s past seven games, he has 48 catches for 799 yards and eight touchdowns.

He was one of three Panthers named Wednesday to the Pro Bowl, along with linebacker Dan Morgan and defensive end Julius Peppers. It will be Muhammad’s third trip to Hawaii, but his first since 2000.

“I’ve had a lot more opportunities than I’ve had in the past,” Muhammad said. “Having those opportunities to make plays motivates you even more. Not to say I wasn’t motivated before, but when you’re not getting the ball thrown your way much, it’s hard to make plays.”

Delhomme said he never really developed a comfort level throwing to Muhammad in his first year as Carolina’s quarterback.

“When you know what somebody does well, you try to play to their strengths,” Delhomme said, “and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

IN THE (WILD) CARDS: Green Bay’s NFC North-clinching victory against Minnesota on Friday meant the Panthers won’t have to worry about losing a wild-card tiebreaker with the Packers, who beat them in Week 1.

The Panthers have the edge in all three-team wild-card tiebreakers if they get to 8-8. But they would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker with Seattle if both the Seahawks and St. Louis finish at 8-8, giving the Rams the NFC West title, and if Minnesota beats or ties Washington next week.

HE HATES IT: Rod Smart’s knee doesn’t bother him anymore. But being unable to play because he’s on injured reserve does. With so many other running backs hurt, he knows he would’ve had the opportunity to do more than return kickoffs.

“Right now, if they give me the green light, I can play,” the Panthers’ third-string running back said. “But injured reserve, there’s nothing I can do.”

Smart went on IR on Nov. 3, several weeks after badly hyperextending his knee and doing some ligament damage on a kick return against Atlanta. At this point, he is just getting into shape in preparation for offseason training.

HAVE A MR. PIBB: So traumatized was Bucs coach Jon Gruden by his latest run-in with Peppers — the third-year pro from North Carolina had a sack, interception return for a touchdown and a blocked field goal in the Panthers’ 21-14 victory Nov. 28 — that he won’t even let his kids bring Dr. Pepper into the house.

“Forget about a pass rusher and a defensive end,” Gruden said, “he is as elusive an athlete for a big man I have ever seen.”

DRAWING THE LINE: Protecting Delhomme will be a top priority today for the Panthers’ offensive line, which surrendered only 12 sacks in Carolina’s first 10 games, but has allowed 14 sacks during the past four games. Tampa Bay’s defense leads the league with 44 sacks.

The Panthers’ line has stayed mostly intact the past two months. Matt Willig has been back at right tackle the past two weeks because of Todd Fordham’s injured ankle, and center Jeff Mitchell has rested for a few series the past two games because of a slight knee sprain.

Delhomme said one big reason for the spike in sacks is the outstanding pass rushers the Panthers have faced in recent weeks, like the Bucs’ Simeon Rice and New Orleans’ Charles Grant.

“Sometimes it’s just my fault for not getting rid of the ball,” he added.

Contact Jeff Carlton

at 373-7065 or jcarlton@

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