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Bye, Bye?

BUCS 7, STEELERS 17: The Bucs flop on MNF and no longer control their destiny in a quest for a first-round bye in the playoffs. Now they must beat the Bears and hope the Jets beat the Packers.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 2002


TAMPA -- It's a good thing that before the Bucs ever took the field at Raymond James Stadium against the Steelers on Monday night, they had clinched the NFC South.

All they did next was potentially ice every other homefield throughout the playoffs.

Tampa Bay's path to the Super Bowl now could run through the frozen tundra at Lambeau Field and the bitterly cold steel of Veterans Stadium.

The Bucs' hopes for a first-round bye and homefield advantage throughout the postseason were dealt a serious blow by the Steelers, who manhandled the Tampa Bay again 17-7.

Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox passed for 236 yards and a touchdown, stunning the Bucs by exploding to a 17-0 lead with 4:24 remaining in the first quarter.

It was second humiliating loss in as many years to the Steelers at RJS for the Bucs (11-4), who played without injured starting quarterback Brad Johnson.

Backup Shaun King, making his first start in nearly two years, was visibly rusty and riled.

He completed 9 of 26 passes for 73 yards and had his second attempt intercepted and returned for a touchdown by cornerback Chad Brown. King was replaced with 6:40 left in the third quarter by Rob Johnson.

"I'm not going to make excuses tonight and be a predictor," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "Brad Johnson has had a great year for us and has a lot to do with us being where we are today. I'm not going to point fingers at me or Shaun King or anyone else. We didn't get it done tonight as a team."

Tampa Bay is guaranteed at least a wild-card game at Raymond James. But the Bucs will need a victory over Chicago at Champaign, Ill., Sunday night and a Jets win at Green Bay to earn the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.

Otherwise they can look forward to hosting the Falcons, Giants or Saints in a wild-card game before heading to the frozen north.

Historically, that means an early exit. Not only are they 0-21 in games played in under 40 degrees, they have never won a road playoff game in six tries.

Meanwhile, the Steelers (9-5-1) clinched the AFC North title.

Gruden said he is undecided who will start at quarterback against the Bears if Brad Johnson, still suffering from a lower back contusion, is unable to play. "There's just a lot of soreness in there that really inhibits his movement and ability to throw the football," he said. "Until it gets better, we're not going to have the opportunity to play him."

The Bucs never were in the game. Their No. 1-ranked defense, which surrendered 144 yards on the ground Dec. 15 at Detroit, was shredded by Maddox and receiver Plaxico Burress. The offensive line yielded six sacks. And fumbles by Mike Alstott and Rob Johnson killed scoring drives deep in Steelers territory.

The Bucs avoided a shutout when Keyshawn Johnson caught an 18-yard TD from Rob Johnson with 1:14 to play.

King had thrown one pass this season, a 7-yard completion to Karl Williams that set up the winning field goal in the Bucs' 12-9 victory on Oct. 27 at Carolina. He had not started since Dec. 31, 2000, in Philadelphia, when the Bucs lost 21-3 in a first-round playoff game.

"We couldn't get anything consistently going," King said. "We'd make a play here or there, then miss a play here or there. I made a couple of bad throws that I wish I had back.

"I have to learn from it. ... I did a lot of good things out there but I left some plays out there. It was not a good half of football."

Tampa Bay entered concerned about the Steelers rushing attack, but Pittsburgh did most of its damage through the air.

Maddox came out firing, completing his first seven passes for 152 yards and a touchdown to Antwaan Randle El. Much of it came on the Steelers' first play, when Maddox surprised the Bucs with a 41-yard pass to Burress (five catches, 127 yards), who beat cornerback Ronde Barber on the play.

On King's second play from scrimmage, he tried to hit Keyshawn Johnson on an out route and Chad Scott intercepted, returning it 30 yards for a touchdown.

With only 4:50 gone, the Steelers led 14-0 to the dismay of a sellout crowd.

"We never got our crowd into the game," Gruden said. "In fact, we probably got them mad at us the first five minute of the game."

Tempers flared in warmups when linebacker Nate Webster tangled with Steelers safety Brent Alexander.

"The intensity on that field was as great as any playoff game I've ever been involved in," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "These were two teams that had a genuine dislike for each other."

Things were so bad for the Bucs that when something went right, it went wrong.

Martin Gramatica got the Bucs on the board by lining a 50-yard field goal through the uprights, a kick that would have cut the deficit to 17-3. But Steelers linebacker Jason Gildon was called for holding, giving Tampa Bay an automatic first down at the Steelers 28. King scrambled for 15 yards and Alstott added a 9-yard run as the first quarter ended. But on second and 2 at the Pittsburgh 8, Alstott fumbled and Aaron Smith recovered, rendering the Bucs scoreless.

"Turnovers was the story of this game," Gruden said. "We turned the ball over inside the red zone twice and had an interception returned for a touchdown. We gave up some uncharacteristically big plays."

The Bucs thought their defense would come to play after the lackluster performance Dec. 15 at Detroit. And they hoped King still had some magic left in his arm, which carried the Bucs to the NFC Championship Game as a rookie. But his quarterback rating in the first quarter was 6.2 to Maddox's 158.3.

"I thought he practiced well, but game speed is not practice speed," said Keyshawn Johnson, who led the Bucs with eight catches for 132 yards. "A few of his throws got away from him and it took him a while to settle down."

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