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This also-ran game holds plenty of value

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 6, 2002

TAMPA -- Even if the final score is meaningless today, the Bucs don't want to wait until next weekend to defeat the Eagles in the NFC wild-card game.

TAMPA -- Even if the final score is meaningless today, the Bucs don't want to wait until next weekend to defeat the Eagles in the NFC wild-card game.

Defensive tackle Warren Sapp said much can be gained or lost depending on who wins the individual matchups, particularly in the trenches.

"At some point in this game, there's going to be 20 or 30 plays that are really going to affect next week's ballgame," Sapp said. "You've got to be on top of your game. That's what we're preparing for, to win this game, be on top of everything and keep building momentum."

It's uncertain whether Sapp will play today, but he insisted last week he will be in the game as long as Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is.

"For me and this team to go where we need to go, I'm playing him with a LoJack," Sapp said. "Wherever he's going, I'm going. If he's on his way, I'm on my way. I've got to be where he's at. That's my job. If he wants a piece of bubble gum, I'm unwrapping it."

MVP: It's time to present the nominees for the Bucs Most Valuable Player Award.

Receiver Keyshawn Johnson. Tied for the NFL lead in receptions with 106 despite having a bull's-eye painted on his chest. His touchdown says more about what's wrong with the Bucs offense than Johnson. He took over a game and saved victory, if not the season, with his acrobatic touchdown catch against Detroit.

For 12 of 15 weeks, the Bucs had no offense were it not for Johnson and short passes underneath to Warrick Dunn. All while opening a restaurant and hosting a one-man, two-hour radio show.

Quarterback Brad Johnson. Devoid of a running game, he took more beatings than a bodyguard on the Jerry Springer Show. He attempted more passes than anyone in the league and still managed to complete an astounding 61 percent while setting a club record for completions. A lock for the courage award.

Linebacker Derrick Brooks. Three times named NFC player of the week despite a severely sprained ankle that rendered him mortal until Week 10. As Brooks goes, so goes the defense. His openfield tackling was the difference between hanging on to beat teams like the Ravens and losing to the Steelers. Named to his fifth straight Pro Bowl.

Safety John Lynch. The too-good-to-be-true Lynch recorded at least 100 tackles for the sixth straight season. But the most impressive thing about Lynch this season was the way he registered saves with stops or interceptions in four games.

Cornerback Ronde Barber. Set a team record for the most magazine features, appearing with twin brother Tiki in Sports Illustrated, People (as the sexiest athletes) and the cover of GQ.

But it was Barber's league-leading 10 interceptions, one for a touchdown, that make him not only an MVP candidate for the Bucs, but for the league.

Okay, Brooks has won team MVP two of the past three seasons and injury limited him for several weeks. Lynch was the top closer, but few MVPs go to relief pitchers. Barber had a monster season, but cornerback rarely is considered an impact position and he benefited from some bad throws, tipped balls and heat on the quarterback.

The envelope, please? Cast my vote for Keyshawn, who many games, was the best player on the field for either team.

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