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Just to be safe, stay away from the road

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 2002

DETROIT -- This was not supposed to be their game. This was not supposed to be their day.

There was a feel of something ugly to Sunday's game between the Bucs and Lions, something ominous and suffocating. You could smell it. You could almost touch it. This was going to be the day they tripped.

There was something off about the Bucs, something that wasn't quite as sharp, as crisp, as on most gamedays. There was something missing, something wrong. It had all the feel of a fabulous flop.

In the NFL, it happens from time to time. A good team goes on the road and it doesn't look where it's going, and the next thing you know it's trying to explain how it stepped into a manhole.

It happens all over the place. It's why a team such as New Orleans loses to Minnesota, why a team such as Atlanta loses to Seattle, why a team such as Pittsburgh loses to Houston. Almost every NFL team with a good record has had a day where it stumbled against a team with a bad one.

Except for the Bucs.

Who keep finding ways to salvage lost weekends.

Say this much for the Bucs. As beatable as they looked for most of Sunday's game against Detroit, they weren't beaten. As ripe as they seemed to be, they weren't plucked.

This was the worst the Bucs have been in a while. They were undisciplined, unfocused, unimpressive. They didn't tackle, they didn't cover and if their offensive line managed to get through a snap without a penalty, it was a success. On a day they clinched a spot in the playoffs, they looked as far from ready for them as possible.

The Bucs could have lost. They should have lost. If not for the grace of Jon Gruden, they would have lost.

Yet, they won.

Which is, as they say, something.

When you see a man trip but not fall, the proper response is hardly to rush up and offer your congratulations. But on a day the Bucs renewed most of the questions about them, they at least managed to do it standing up. Most teams can't say that.

Under Gruden, however, the Bucs have taken care of games such as these. One of the best things you can say about the guy is that he finds a way to get beneath the skin of his players, to make sure they know the importance of every game.

This year, Tampa Bay has managed to beat every team it clearly should beat. Oh, it hasn't won any beauty contests along the way. In the world of beauty, the Bucs' victory over the Lions was a mole with hair on it. No one is going to launch a thousand ships, or a rowboat with a missing paddle, over this one. No one is going to write sonnets.

"But we won," Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "That's the bottom line.

"All year, we've been finding different ways to win."

Tampa Bay spent most of Sunday taking one body shot or another. The Lions, a team so bad at running the ball they ranked behind the Bucs, a team missing its starting running back, proceeded to go right up the belly buttons of the Bucs. Detroit ran for 144 yards, resurrecting the old notion that the best way to get through the quickness of this defense was to charge straight at it.

If that wasn't enough, the Bucs were sloppy in their tackling -- a clear sign their focus didn't make the trip -- and the offensive line allowed the world's quietest stadium, the Library Dome, to affect its concentration. It was as if once the Bucs jumped to a 10-0 lead, they expected Detroit to blow away. They spent the day on cruise control, and darned if they didn't nearly drive into a tree.

"We didn't play our best game," Gruden said.

Ho, they didn't. To tell the truth, this might not qualify as the best game for the '76 Bucs.

Still, they won. And in only 17 years and seven months, people will forget how homely it was.

This game would have been a disaster to lose, of course. The Bucs have the chance to put themselves in pretty good shape for the playoffs with a couple of more wins. A loss to the Lions could have eaten at them for a very long time.

Grant the Bucs this much. As the fourth quarter began, they were fully aware of how much they were stinking up the joint. Somehow, they managed to calm themselves and pull out this game. Somehow, they knew they would find a way to win, and the Lions would find a way to lose, because that was the proper order of things. Somehow, they found their way toward their 11th victory of the season.

Along the way, they managed to give those who watch them a reason or two to be concerned. What about the penalties? What about the injuries? What about the focus? (Let's face it: the skeptics among us are used to living under dark clouds and picking at scabs. It's what we do.)

If nothing else, you can use this game as a testament to how badly the Bucs need to stay off the road during the playoffs. If a trip to Detroit can be this problematic, who needs to travel anywhere else?

Gruden doesn't agree, of course.

"I'm not going to be one of those who say 'Gee, if we don't get a homefield advantage, let's don't even go to the playoffs,' " he said. "I'm so tired of hearing these gosh-darned experts telling me we can't win in the cold, we can't win on the road and for (darn) sure if we go to Philadelphia, we can't win there.

"Those are some serious matters you can't let fester, that negative perception that if we don't get homefield advantage, let's just pack it in because we don't have a chance. We're going to play hard. We've proven that. We're going to fight and be in games at the end."

That much is true. The Bucs expect to win the close decisions. They have proven they can win a race despite a dented fender and a wobbly wheel. It doesn't have to be pretty. It doesn't have to be smooth.

It does, however, have to be better than this.

And, just to be safe, a little homefield couldn't hurt.

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