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Sure it wasn't pretty, but couple an ugly win with losses by the Saints and the Falcons and the Bucs, who clinch a playoff berth, are in a beautiful position atop the NFC South.
By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 16, 2002
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A smirk formed across his lips, giving him the look of a condemned man who had eaten his last meal and said his final words before hearing the call from the governor being answered.
The Bucs had played poorly, narrowly escaping with a 23-20 win over the Lions, clinching a playoff spot for the fourth straight season and tying a club record with 11 victories.
But Gruden felt more like counting wins than his blessings.
"This is the National Football League. You can get your block knocked off any Sunday if you don't make timely plays," Gruden said. "And when you get beat in the hole in a two-deep zone and you give up a 90-yard kickoff return and you're on the road, I wish you luck. We're fortunate to get this win.
"They're all good when you win. You like to rank the beauty of victories. There's not a lot of teams in the National Football League with 11 wins. I don't really give a rat's behind how we get them as long as we get them."
A victory Dec. 23 over Pittsburgh, or a loss by New Orleans, would give Tampa Bay the NFC South title. The Saints lost to Minnesota 32-31, and the third-place Falcons fell to Seattle 30-24 in overtime, eliminating them from the division race.
The Bucs' only loss Sunday did not come on the scoreboard. Defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, who returned Dec. 8 after missing four games with a broken right forearm, fractured his right foot and will miss the rest of the season.
The Bucs never trailed but needed a 38-yard Martin Gramatica field goal with 3:04 remaining to beat the lowly Lions in a game that was tied three times.
Tampa Bay's No. 1 defense couldn't stop the league's 31st rushing offense that played without injured starting tailback James Stewart. And it couldn't cover receivers after Lions rookie Joey Harrington left the game with an irregular heartbeat after one series.
Finally, the special teams couldn't tackle, yielding kickoff returns of 90 and 46 yards.
"It's a sigh of relief," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "I'm geeked up because I got what I came up here for."
But not before the Lions put a big scare into the Bucs' hopes for a division title andhomefield advantage in the playoffs.
Behind little-known running backs Aveion Cason, a former Lakewood High standout, and Rafael Cooper, the Lions rushed for 144 yards in 26 carries (5.5 average).
Backup quarterback Mike McMahon, who entered after one series for Harrington, passed for one touchdown and ran for another.
"No, we never thought it would be easy," said receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who had six catches for 90 yards and improved to 4-1 against the Lions as a Buc. "None of the games have been easy. Last year, they both came down to the wire. In Michigan, we needed a field goal to win in the final seconds. The last year at (Raymond James), we needed a TD with so many seconds. If we had played them at home today, it might have been a different story. But they have a lot of pride and they were not going to let us come in here and bury them."
The Bucs bolted to a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter. Aaron Stecker returned the opening kickoff 67 yards to set up Gramatica's first field goal and Mike Alstott capped a 96-yard drive, second longest in team history, with his 1-yard touchdown run.
Enter McMahon, who needed six plays to get the Lions into the end zone, firing passes of 46 and 18 yards to Bill Schroeder, the second for a score.
"I tip my hat to the Lions; they played extremely hard and made some big plays in the kicking game," Gruden said. "Mike McMahon comes in, it's a 10-0 game, takes them down and makes a couple great throws.
"We know McMahon from playing him in the past. This is a real mobile guy who can generate some offense with his legs. ... He really played well."
But according to defensive tackle Warren Sapp, it was more about what the Bucs did wrong than what the Lions did right.
Playing without Pro Bowl safety John Lynch, the Bucs defense blew gap assignments, missed tackles and did not put much pressure on McMahon.
"It was just the mistakes we made. We've always said, if we're not going to be in our gaps, it's going to look bad," Sapp said. "We just kept making mistakes over and over again. Our offense looked like it was playing well today and we almost cost us the ballgame. There were just breakdowns all day long. Any time we made a mistake, they found it."
One play essentially turned the game around for the Bucs. With the scored tied at 13, Cason made a one-handed catch on the sideline at the Tampa Bay 39. But on the next snap, linebacker Shelton Quarles batted a pass intended for Germane Crowell and made the interception at midfield. The Bucs used the turnover to drive 58 yards for a touchdown, most of it coming on Keyshawn Johnson's acrobatic catch of a 30-yard pass. That play set up Michael Pittman's first rushing TD of the season.
Even though Eddie Drummond returned the ensuing kickoff 91 yards to set up McMahon's tying run, the Bucs never really lost control.
"It was a big play," Gruden said of Quarles' pick. "They had just made a huge play on their sideline. McMahon backed up, throws the ball and I don't know how the guy makes the one-handed catch. But that play right there obviously was the turning point in my opinion in the football game. Not only did it stymie their scoring drive, it gave us very good field position, which we took advantage of and scored."
So the Bucs cheated the hangman and kept their hopes alive for homefield advantage.
"Some teams don't play their best games, but they find a way to win," Sapp said. "San Francisco was losing to Dallas last week but won. Good teams find a way to win and we got a win today. We might stumble, but we don't fall down."
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