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Light up the cannons and hold your ears

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002

TAMPA -- There's never been a more talented Bucs team than the one that will run out of the tunnel at Raymond James Stadium with Jon Gruden. Or one that's more balanced.

TAMPA -- There's never been a more talented Bucs team than the one that will run out of the tunnel at Raymond James Stadium with Jon Gruden. Or one that's more balanced.

Offense won't be something Tampa Bay plays just to give the defense a water break. Touchdowns should be up. Gunpowder for the cannons could become scarce.

Although five of the Bucs first eight games are on the road, it should be child's play for Chucky and the Bucs in the NFC South. Winning the division that includes New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina would give the Bucs a home playoff game, possibly a bye.

Of course, would anything less be acceptable?

Here's just a guess of what to expect in Year 1 A.D. (After Dungy):

SUNDAY -- NEW ORLEANS, 4:15 P.M. (CH. 13): Gruden's playbook gets a test early against Saints coach Jim Haslett. But there's too much emotion in RJS and too much motion in Chucky's playbook for New Orleans. Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell each catch TD passes from Brad Johnson. Bucs 21, Saints 9.

SEPT. 15 -- AT BALTIMORE, 1 P.M. (CH. 13):: Winning on the road is a lost art in the NFL. The 49ers used to do it with numbing regularity. Gruden's Bucs will travel first class and stay in opulent hotels. Maybe its too many crabcakes, but this looks like a trap door game. Jamal Lewis gives the Ravens a running game, and as long as Ray Lewis takes a breath, their defense is worrisome. Plus, Tampa Bay is looking ahead to MNF. Ravens 20, Bucs 13

SEPT. 23 -- ST. LOUIS, 9 P.M. (CH. 28): Rams-Bucs on Monday Night Football has become one of the fall season's highest-rated shows. Tampa Bay has won the last two regular-season meetings, thanks to a slew of St. Louis turnovers. Rams coach Mike Martz has met his match in Monte Kiffin. Now St. Louis defensive coordinator Lovie Smith will have to contend with Gruden. Tampa Bay has won its last three MNF games at home. Make it four. Bucs 30, Rams 24

SEPT. 29 -- AT CINCINNATI, 4:05 P.M. (CH. 13): Still riding high from their victory over the Rams, the Bucs are not affected by the short week. The Bengals will be coming off a Sunday night game at Atlanta. The Bucs have won their past two regular-season meetings in the Queen City. Keyshawn Johnson doubles his TD total from 2001 and Tampa Bay pitches a shutout. Bucs 24, Bengals 0

OCT. 6 -- AT ATLANTA, 1 P.M. (CH. 13): The Bucs return to NFC South action at the Georgia Dome with more than 20,000 Bucs fans in attendance. Former Tampa Bay running back Warrick Dunn splits time with rookie T.J. Duckett and afterward complains about having to share carries. Meanwhile, with Michael Pittman nursing that sore ankle he injured the first day of training camp, Mike Alstott carries 30 times for 131 yards and two touchdowns. The Pittman-Alstott debate takes wings on his weekly radio show. The only glitch is the 115 rushing yards allowed to quarterback Michael Vick. Bucs 27, Falcons 14

OCT. 13 -- CLEVELAND, 4:15 P.M. (CH. 10): It's been 20 days since the Bucs played a game at RJS and the confines look pretty friendly. But the passing game is struggling behind a gimpy Brad Johnson and Gruden decides to add a little flavor by inserting backup Rob Johnson into the lineup. The switch pays some immediate dividends as he is able to avoid the rush, throwing for one touchdown and running for another. Gentlemen, start your quarterback controversy. Bucs 28, Browns 13

OCT. 20 -- AT PHILADELPHIA, 1 P.M. (CH. 13): Talk about a house of horrors. This is where the Bucs season has come to die in the first round of the playoffs the last two years. Just walking into Veterans Stadium gives players the shakes. Considering the Eagles are favored to win the NFC East, the game could be a factor in a tiebreaker for home field advantage. Rob Johnson makes his first start of the season but is pounded by a relentless Eagles defense and takes a beating. Shaun King comes out of the bullpen but doesn't provide much relief. Bucs repeat the Philadelphia story. Eagles 28, Bucs 9

OCT. 27 -- AT CAROLINA, 1 P.M. (CH. 13): It's good to be King, who makes his first start since January 2001. The fourth road game in five weeks takes its toll, but Carolina is arguably the worst team in the NFL. Still, it's a struggle until Martin Gramatica wins it in overtime with a 51-yard field goal. Bucs 17, Panthers 14

NOV. 3 -- MINNESOTA, 1 P.M. (CH. 13): Fans who are nostalgic for the old NFC Central have a treat in store when the Vikings make their only appearance. The home team has won this game in five of the past six seasons. It's seems weird with neither Dennis Green nor Tony Dungy is on the sidelines. Receiver Randy Moss is about the only weapon Daunte Culpepper has in his arsenal. But Moss takes too many plays off against the Bucs. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp records two sacks of Culpepper. Bucs 30, Vikings 20.

NOV. 17 -- CAROLINA, 4:05 P.M. (CH. 13): The bye week helped heal Brad Johnson, who is back under the controls, much to the dismay of King and some Bucs fans. Chris Weinke returns to Florida, but he doesn't enjoy the home cooking. Cornerback Ronde Barber intercepts him twice, making early reservations for the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. Aloha, Panthers. Bucs 27, Panthers 9

NOV. 24 -- GREEN BAY, 1 P.M. (CH. 13): This represents a clash of two NFC division leaders. Thankfully, the game is in Tampa Bay, where the Packers have not won since '97. lt also marks the first return to Tampa of middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson since he left as a free agent following the 1999 season. RJS does not have the aura of Lambeau Field, but its home field advantage holds for Tampa Bay. Bucs 16, Packers 10

DEC. 1 -- AT NEW ORLEANS, 8:30 P.M. (ESPN): Nothing comes easy in the Big Easy. Louisiana native Anthony McFarland and King, who attended Tulane, arrange for a pre-game creole feast of gumbo, shrimp scampi and po'boys. But the Bucs are staying within walking distance of Bourbon Street on a weekend featuring the Bayou Classic. Twenty-four hours in the Cresent City is too much distraction. Saints 27, Bucs 13

DEC. 8 -- ATLANTA, 1 P.M. (CH. 13): Oh, there's no place like home for the hol-i-days. Warrick Dunn returns to Tampa Bay bearing keys to several houses for single mothers, continuing his inspiring charitable initiative. Dunn follows that performance with a terrific game and the Bucs defense tires chasing him and quarterback Michael Vick. Gramatica saves the day with a last-second field goal, his second game-winner. Bucs 24, Falcons 21

DEC 15 -- AT DETROIT, 1 P.M. (CH. 13): Bucs make their first appearance at beautiful Ford Field. With nothing to play for, the Lions are led by sensational rookie quarterback Joey Harrington, who makes his first NFL start. But Tampa Bay is motivated, needing a victory to clinch the NFC South division title. Gruden gets the Gatorade bath. Bucs 30, Lions 17

DEC. 23 -- PITTSBURGH 9 P.M. (CH. 28): It's the Scowl vs. the Chin. Gruden vs. Bill Cowher is a Christmas present for ABC's Monday Night Football. More cameras are aimed at the sideline than the field. Embarrassed from last year's 10-sack pasting, the Bucs want to make a statement against the Super Bowl contenders. Make it five in a row at home on MNF. Bucs 16, Steelers 13

DEC. 29 -- AT CHICAGO, 8:30 P.M. (ESPN): All together, now! The Bucs have NEVER won a game when the kickoff temperature was below 40 degrees. Well, this is an opportunity, because some genius at the NFL office scheduled a Sunday night game in Chapagne-Urbana, Ill. For Gruden, it's reminiscent of the Raiders-Patriots playoff game, without the tuck rule. Bucs shiver to defeat. Bears 17, Bucs 3

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