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Brad leaves no doubt about it

Quarterback returning from back injury shakes off rust and questions about his health to lead Bucs rout.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2003

TAMPA -- He hadn't played in four weeks, but by the end of Sunday's 31-6 playoff win against the 49ers, quarterback Brad Johnson's return as a Buccaneer was complete, all the way to the patch over his eye.

"The eye is just fine," said Johnson, sporting a square bandage above his right eyebrow from a cut that forced him to miss four plays in the third quarter. "I'm sure that will be the question this week."

For a month, the question had been a sore back that sidelined him for the past two games, but in his return Sunday there was little question at all. After an early interception, Johnson shook off the rust and led the Bucs to 28 points by halftime, setting the team's playoff scoring record and putting Tampa Bay within one win of the Super Bowl.

"Brad's our go-to guy, our leader, our team MVP," guard Cosey Coleman said. "It's just different when Brad's in there. When he runs the show, it's just comfortable. Any time you're missing a starter like that, you're hurting, but having him back at 100 percent, it lifts our confidence that we're all at our best."

Johnson missed on five of his first six passes, including an interception by Rashad Holman that set the 49ers up on the Bucs 40. The defense would force the 49ers to punt, and coach Jon Gruden, expecting Johnson to need an adjustment period, continued to call plays that let Johnson throw often early. Of the Bucs' first 18 plays, 14 were passes, and the first 11 attempts went to six different targets. By the time Mike Alstott's 2-yard touchdown gave Tampa Bay a 7-0 lead, Johnson had thrown 13 passes.

"We tried to come out four, five, six times quick and get him refocused, reacclimated to the speed," Gruden said. "He played a great game, and he's a key to why we're here. We're proud of him."

Johnson guided the offense to touchdowns on three of the next four possessions, at one point converting five consecutive third-down attempts.

The best conversion capped a 77-yard drive, as Johnson found Joe Jurevicius in the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown on third and 7. He would add a score to Rickey Dudley, part of a 21-point second quarter that represented more points than the Bucs had scored in any of their previous nine playoff games.

"He's shown all year what he can do when you give him time and keep him clean," center Jeff Christy said. "He's a smart, veteran quarterback, and he just needs the time to be able to make decisions."

Johnson was sacked once, and the cut above his eye came on a 5-yard run early in the third quarter. He said he felt no pain but noticed the blood. He saluted the fans as he was carted to the locker room for treatment and missed four plays while receiving seven stitches. He got an ovation when he returned to the field.

"The fans were unbelievable," said Johnson, who was impressed by a sea of red and white battle flags given to fans. "You always hear about the 12th man, but that's what homefield advantage does for you. Our fans couldn't have been better."

Johnson was, perhaps, the biggest beneficiary of the Bucs earning a first-round playoff bye.

That gave him two more weeks of rest and, just as important, six days of practice to help ease his transition back into running the offense.

Many fans believed Johnson was snubbed when he was not selected for the Pro Bowl. But Sunday, he won a matchup with the 49ers' Jeff Garcia, who will be going to Hawaii in February. Johnson completed 15 of 31 passes for 196 yards, throwing for three more yards than Garcia with 10 fewer attempts. Johnson had two touchdown passes and one interception while Garcia had no scores and was picked off three times.

The player who was the Bucs' biggest question mark entering the postseason is back in midseason form, showing the same accuracy and resilience that helped him throw a team-record 23 touchdowns.

The Bucs will go as far as he can take them, though he finds a familiar obstacle ahead in Sunday's NFC Championship Game at Philadelphia.

"We know the work we have cut out for us," said Johnson, who played much of the 20-10 regular-season loss to Philadelphia with a broken rib. "They earned the right to have homefield advantage because they went 12-4 and had a great year.

"It's a great environment. We just have to go up there, play ball and let it ride."

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