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Bucs 21, Packers 7

Sittin' Pretty

The defense intercepts Brett Favre four times and the offense does just enough to give the Bucs the NFL's best record and a hold on home field throughout the playoffs ... for now.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 25, 2002

The defense intercepts Brett Favre four times and the offense does just enough to give the Bucs the NFL's best record and a hold on home field throughout the playoffs ... for now.

TAMPA -- Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson left Sunday's game against Green Bay during the first quarter, twice going to the locker room to consult with an ophthalmologist about double vision.

But today, the rest of the NFL will schedule an eye exam.

When they look for the team with the league's best record, seeing might be disbelieving.

Tampa Bay, with its unsightly offense and swarming defense, took control of the race for homefield throughout the NFC playoffs with a 21-7 victory against the Packers on Sunday.

The Bucs intercepted Brett Favre four times (two by cornerback Brian Kelly) and Johnson returned to throw touchdowns to Joe Jurevicius and Ken Dilger.

The victory gives the Bucs the best record in the NFL at 9-2 and a two-game lead over New Orleans in the NFC South entering Sunday night's game at the Saints. The Browns beat the Saints 24-15 on Sunday.

More important, it proved the Bucs are not feasting on an easy schedule.

"I think the one thing is we were looking forward to this opportunity to kind of validate ourselves," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "We believe in ourselves, but there seems to be a perception that this team hasn't beaten anyone.

"Well, we beat the other 8-2 team in the league. Fine. Keep having your perceptions as to what it is. But we're on top, and we're going to try not to let it go now and keep pressing on."

Hostilities didn't end after the final horn Sunday.

After the game, Packers coach Mike Sherman and Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp had to be restrained during an altercation as the teams left the field.

Sherman was upset about Sapp's hit on tackle Chad Clifton during Kelly's first interception return. Clifton left the game on a stretcher with numbness in his legs and fingers. He was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital and kept overnight with a severely sprained hip.

But Clifton's absence might not have been as costly to the Packers as Johnson's was to the Bucs.

He left the game during the first series after being poked in the eye by defensive end Vonnie Holliday.

"I had double vision in my right eye and pointed to Rob (Johnson) to get ready," Brad Johnson said. "And the next play was a toss to Michael Pittman in the backfield. I couldn't see when I pitched it to him. I saw two of those guys running."

Rob Johnson was ineffective. He was intercepted by linebacker Na'il Diggs and sacked twice until Brad Johnson returned with 10:04 left in the second quarter.

Diggs' interception led to the Packers' only touchdown, a 4-yard lob to Donald Driver for a 7-0 lead.

"Sure, you want your guy out there," Lynch said. "We've got a great belief in Rob and Shaun (King), but you want your guy out there. Brad's the guy this team rallies around. We feel like we're awfully good when he's out there. So I was looking around for No.14.

"We talked about it in the huddle. Our quarterback's down. We've got to step up our game. The first couple of drives, (Favre) was doing a great job of keeping it up-tempo. A quick count and they got a little rhythm going. At that point, we talked, came together and said, "It's time to turn our game up. We've got to take this game over."'

Did they ever.

Favre is a three-time most valuable player.

But against the Bucs, particularly at Raymond James Stadium, where he is winless in five games, he throws the game away. In his past six games against Tampa Bay, Favre has four touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

After Martin Gramatica kept the Bucs close with field goals of 38 and 51 yards, the Bucs started picking Favre's pocket during the third quarter. Kelly intercepted a pass intended for Terry Glenn and returned it 31 yards.

The play set up the Bucs' go-ahead score, a perfectly thrown 4-yard pass to Jurevicius that originally was ruled out of bounds. But a replay review showed Jurevicius got both feet down, and the call was reversed, giving the Bucs a lead.

Johnson then connected with Keyshawn Johnson on a two-point conversion to make it 14-7.

"Just look at the throw to Joe Jurevicius on the touchdown," Keyshawn Johnson said. "It's a perfectly thrown ball. You can't get any better than that."

Favre answered, driving the Packers 53 yards in nine plays. But on third and 3 at the Tampa Bay 21, his pass to Glenn on a quick slant was intercepted by Ronde Barber, who played with a cast on his broken left thumb.

"In conditions like this, you have to be on the same page," Favre said. "The first one, I just misread. (Glenn) wasn't wrong. He had an option, and I thought he was going to do something different. You can't be thinking. You have to know. The second one in the end zone was also to (Glenn), but (Barber) made a great play on it."

The Bucs put the game away when safety Dexter Jackson intercepted Favre's pass to Driver and returned it 58 yards. The play set up Johnson's second touchdown pass, a 3-yarder to Dilger with 7:24 left.

The Bucs still have a long road to the Super Bowl. After Sunday's game at New Orleans, they host Atlanta on Dec.8.

"We knew what we were in the middle of in this ballgame, and we knew it was another brick in the road to the Super Bowl that has to come through Tampa," Sapp said. "We'll see if we can put a couple of more hard bricks in there.

"That's why we're paving. We pave this road the right way, it's going to be a smooth run."

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