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Rivalry brings out Bucs' best

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 24, 2002

TAMPA -- Savor the moment. Freeze the memory.

TAMPA -- Savor the moment. Freeze the memory.

The Bucs and the Rams have done it again. They have given us another classic.

This is why this is the finest series the NFL has seen in a decade. This is the reason the league should tape this series and hand it out to every other team that pretends it has a rivalry.

This was, well, fun.

Forget the records of the teams. Forget the disappointments each has endured over the first two weeks. Tampa Bay beat the Rams on Monday night in what was the team's finest performance since, oh, the last time the Bucs beat the Rams.

That's what these teams do to each other. They turn into irresistible forces and immovable objects. They turn into Ali and Frazier, into Russell and Chamberlain. They get together and contrast styles and compare greatness.

It happened again Monday night, on a night the crowd was so loud people in Orlando called to complain about the noise. Once more, they made every play seem as if it mattered. How many football games can do that anymore?

Yeah, yeah. If you're of a mind, you could try to lessen what the Bucs accomplished by pointing to the Rams' record. Yes, St. Louis is 0-3, and there is a little less voltage to its attack than the past couple of years. People are starting to notice that Mike Martz is simply a huge fan of Mike Martz, that he seems to believe that it was Mike Martz who came up with the idea of converting third downs.

And, yes, it should be pointed out that Marshall Faulk missed almost three quarters with a neck injury. Of course that hurt the Rams. A team doesn't lose its finest player -- heck, the league's finest player -- without it playing a role in the defeat.

That said, the Rams still have some sizzle to them, and stopping them still is a full day's work. Kurt Warner was a warrior. Torry Holt wasn't bad, either.

Still, it didn't matter.

Once again, the Bucs were the Bucs.

Take Derrick Brooks. When he is old and gray, and when you think of him, it is the Rams you will remember him playing against. He has made his reputation playing against St. Louis, roaming from one sideline to another, cutting down Faulk time and again. It was Brooks who knocked Faulk from the game on a clean, hard tackle in the second quarter.

And it was Brooks, naturally, who ended things. Brooks, too, had been hurt. His aching hamstring had kept him out of the game most of the fourth quarter before he came back in -- What? Did you expect him to watch? -- and returned an interception 39 yards for the exclamation point.

Take Warren Sapp. Time and again, he penetrated the Rams offensive line and harassed Warner. Suddenly, he didn't seem like such a chatterbox, did he?

Take Simeon Rice. The guy has some star quality to him, doesn't he? It was Rice's interception and return that swung the game in the first half when the Rams were threatening to take a 14-6 lead. Instead, the Bucs followed the interception with a touchdown and took a 13-7 lead of their own.

For that matter, take Monte Kiffin. Yes, we all have received the memo that Martz is the Edison of offense, but his Rams offense has played the Bucs four times now, and it has been blunted three of them by Kiffin's defense. Does that make Kiffin the Einstein of defense, and if so, does that explain his hair?

Faulk or not, this was a wonderful night for the Bucs defense, which took over the game in the second half. There is something about the Rams that brings out its best, that makes it crisper, younger, more relentless. Put it this way: After five sacks and four interceptions, no one is worried about anyone's age anymore.

If you remember, the real Rams were supposed to show up, motivated by desperation, grinding their teeth and really, really taking it seriously. This is bunk, of course. A team isn't more dangerous because it is losing. The Rams were dangerous because they're the Rams. (If you believe in the desperation theory, just think of how dangerous the Rams will be next week. For that matter, think of how dangerous the Bengals will be, too.)

The Bucs had a little crisis to avoid themselves. This NFC South has a few more speed bumps than previously reported. The Saints look pretty good. The Falcons are better than their record. And someone upstairs seems to love the Panthers.

The Bucs still aren't complete. The offense continues to sputter. The running game is a dud. The offensive line doesn't have enough players, and it keeps losing the ones it has.

Still, this was better than the victory over the Ravens, and that was better than the loss to the Saints.

Who knows? If Jon Gruden can convince all the Bucs' opponents to wear those cute little horns on their helmets, the Bucs might get this thing going after all.

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