Successful season? It might hinge on win

This week's electronic conversation between Sports columnists Gary Shelton and John Romano:

By GARY SHELTON and JOHN ROMANO, Times Columnists
Published January 6, 2008

GS: Here's a question for you, John. Now that the Bucs are in the playoffs, do you think Jon Gruden will play his starters or will he keep them healthy for next week's game?

JR: Quit being so snide. I noticed you giving your typing fingers a rest in the sauna this week.

GS: Are you kidding? Snide is on my business card. But here's a serious question: If the Bucs don't win, is this season still a success?

JR: Success with a caveat. Sort of like USF's season. It would have turned out better than expectations, but you'd be haunted by what might have been. In that sense, this might be the most important game the Bucs have played since Super Bowl XXXVII. There is more at stake today than the 2005 postseason.

GS: I agree. In 2005, the Bucs won 11 games. Win that many after a losing season and you don't need a playoff win to suggest you have done okay. If the Bucs lose today, they will finish 9-8 with four losses in their final five games. It wouldn't feel like overachievement.

JR: On the other hand, the Bucs pocketed about $15-million by staying far below the salary cap and now have the revenue from a home playoff game. I'd guess the Glazers would call that very successful.

GS: Maybe. But if making money was the point of pro football, it wouldn't be called the Lombardi Trophy. It would be called the Culverhouse Cup.

JR: And it would come with a plaid sport coat.

GS: Throw in cheap bourbon, an Alabama game program and a 2-14 record and you have just summed up the history of the Bucs' first 20 seasons. That might be why the Bucs are after the seventh playoff victory in their history. So what do you expect today?

JR: I expect Earnest Graham to be stuffed. I expect Brandon Jacobs to gain 100 yards. I expect the game to come down to the final minutes, but, in the end, Jeff Garcia and the Bucs defense make winning plays. Of course, I also expect Jennifer Garner to hit on me, and that's never happened.

GS: Jennifer is spending her time with Ben Affleck, whose career seems about as pointless as yours. So maybe you have a chance. As far as the Giants, a lot of people seem to expect them to steamroll the Bucs. Are people putting too much stock in a New England game that the Giants, technically, lost?

JR: Well, if you want to assign beauty points to losses, New York certainly looked sexier against the Patriots than the Bucs did against the Panthers. Fortunately, those Week 17 games didn't mean a thing. The reality is neither the Giants nor the Bucs have many impressive victories. New York went 1-5 against teams that made the playoffs this season. The Bucs were 2-3.

GS: I'll be honest. If this game were at a neutral site, I would pick the Giants. But the Bucs won six games at home this year, and the average margin of victory was by more than two touchdowns. Although New York is a good road team, the Bucs should win. At least, they should if Garcia is as good as I remember he was way back in October.

JR: The Bucs are 4-2 in playoff games at home and 1-6 on the road. So history is certainly on your side. It is also on your hair and mustache, but that's another story.

GS: Oh, I get it. I'm old. On the other hand, so is Garcia. Do you think he can buy enough time against the Giants? Can he get one into the end zone when it counts? And who is playing the role of Edell Shepherd this year?

JR: No one can replace Edell. However, if you're looking for an unlikely hero to emerge, I'm going with Alex Smith.

GS: That's interesting. My vote would go to Tanard Jackson, who will intercept Eli Manning about 37 times. The Bucs will give game balls to Jackson and Manning.

JR: And Eli will throw his into the wrong locker.