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Hello Good Bye

The season finale isn't pretty for the offense, but it's worth next week off, is the Bucs first win when the kickoff is below 40 degrees and is their 12th win of the season.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 30, 2002

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Thankfully for the Bucs, Champaign was not on ice.

Tampa Bay beat the Chicago Bears and the weather, breaking its 21-game winless streak in cold-weather games.

With the temperature at kickoff of 38 degrees -- the Bucs had never won in under 40 -- Tampa Bay thawed out enough on offense to produce five Martin Gramatica field goals and defeat the Bears 15-0.

In addition to earning their franchise-record 12th victory, the Bucs were bestowed the No. 2 seed in the NFC and will receive a first-round bye.

The gift was made possible several hours before kickoff when the New York Jets routed Green Bay 42-17, enabling the Bucs to knock the Packers to No. 3 by virtue of owning the tiebreaker.

Tampa Bay will host the NFC divisional playoff game Jan. 11 or 12 at Raymond James Stadium.

"The situation we let get away from us Monday was put right back in our laps here," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "You can't ask for anything better than that, than to have the table set for you. The only thing we had to do was sit down and eat. This is a greedy ballclub once you give us something right in front of us. We ate everything on the table and got us a bye."

The Bucs could use the extra week of rest if for no other reason than to hope starting quarterback Brad Johnson can return to the lineup for the first time since sustaining a lower back contusion at Detroit Dec. 15.

In 12 quarters without Johnson, the Bucs have one touchdown.

After the game, Johnson did little to defuse reports he has a stress fracture in his back, but he was emphatic about his return.

"I'm playing," he said. "It didn't matter when I had a cracked rib. It didn't matter. I'll be able to play. I felt like I could've gone if they needed me tonight. I'll be at practice Wednesday."

The Bucs will play the highest remaining seed from the wild-card games: Atlanta (sixth seed) at Green Bay (third) Saturday, the Giants (fifth) at San Francisco (fourth) Sunday.

The Philadelphia Eagles, despite losing to the Giants Saturday, have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

The last time the Bucs had a first-round bye, after winning the NFC Central in 1999, they beat Washington in the divisional playoff before losing to the Rams 11-6 in the NFC Championship Game in St. Louis.

"I've been here before," Sapp said. "I know what it's like to be watching football on the weekend and then be waiting for that guy that's playing on the NFL Ticket to come see you. I've got no beef with that. And then it's just 60 minutes anywhere in the world for the Greatest Show on Earth. I've been there before. I've been there with impossible odds."

Backup quarterback Rob Johnson, making his second start of the season, had another slow start. He completed 16 of 25 passes for 134 yards and was sacked five times, three in his first 10 plays.

Fortunately for the Bucs, their top-ranked defense could feast on the first NFL start by rookie Henry Burris, the Bears No. 3 quarterback. Since '97, Tampa Bay is 8-1 against rookie quarterbacks.

Wanting to redeem itself after lackluster performances at Detroit and Monday night against Pittsburgh, the Bucs defense was dominating in recording its second shutout of the season. Tampa Bay constantly chased Burris (7-of-19 for 78 yards, 10.3 rating) from the pocket and intercepted him four times, including two by cornerback Brian Kelly.

"We knew it was going to be a tough night for him," Sapp said. "We just needed to get enough points to seal this thing off for him. Once 12 went through, we knew we pretty much sealed it. There wasn't no way we were going to give up three scores. No way."

Nine of the Bucs' 15 points came off turnovers. Linebacker Derrick Brooks' 44-yard return of his fifth interception of the season set up Gramatica's 32-yard field goal. Kelly's seventh and eighth picks of the season set up two field goals, and Dwight Smith's interception led to Gramatica's fifth.

Tampa Bay struggled on offense from the outset, relying mostly on its rushing game to take the pressure off Johnson.

But Tampa Bay took advantage of the Bears' 26th-ranked defense against the run. Michael Pittman had his best game, rushing for a season-high 90 yards on 21 carries and catching two passes for 28 yards.

Before the Bucs took the field, they were stoked by watching the Jets demolish the Packers.

"That was big," receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "We had our little 12-inch TV in here watching the game and paying close attention."

Also big was the Bucs' ridding themselves of the belief they can't win in cold weather. The Bucs could end up playing the NFC Championship Game at Veterans Stadium.

"How 'bout that? It's something," coach Jon Gruden said. "It's a milestone, really, tonight. Winning 12 games, it's the first time we've been able to do that. We made sure the thermometer was accurate. We accomplished something big."

But nothing the Bucs gained was bigger than an extra week of rest for Brad Johnson. Without its starting quarterback, Tampa Bay has produced nine field goals and one TD.

Gruden said reports Johnson's injury involves a fracture were false.

"There's a lot of people reporting a lot of things and not a lot of these reports are coming from our training staff," Gruden said. "Those are false and inaccurate."

Besides, Sapp says it's Brad Johnson's time to take control of the huddle.

"He's been gone what? Two or three weeks? Shoot, at some point he's going to go back or we're going to shoot his a--," Sapp said. "Either you're playing or you ain't.

"Let him rest. We went out and shouldered the load for him. Now it's his turn to carry us."

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