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Knockout

Sapped of the strength that is their star quarterback, the Packers lose a fourth-quarter lead to Gramatica and the charging Bucs 20-15.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 2000


TAMPA -- All around him, teammates twice his size sat at their lockers and dressed slowly, occasionally wiping perspiration that still streamed from their foreheads.

But Sunday's 20-15 win over the Green Bay Packers was no sweat for Martin Gramatica, who looked as cool as a breath mint after kicking fourth-quarter field goals of 54 and 51 yards.

A few feet away, defensive tackle Warren Sapp made an observation that was as deadly accurate as the Bucs' remarkable second-year kicker.

"You can't find that," Sapp said, nodding toward Gramatica. "I looked at Coach and said, "That might have been the best pick we've ever made.' Outside of me, (Derrick) Brooks or whoever else, that is the best pick we've made around here in 100 years. There's no doubt about."

Having blown a 14-3 halftime lead, the Bucs found themselves trailing by a point 1:06 into the fourth quarter. Green Bay's only touchdown came on a fake field-goal attempt when holder and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck threw a 27-yard scoring pass to rookie tight end Bubba Franks.

But Gramatica, who has made 12 straight field goals, alerted Bucs coach Tony Dungy that he felt confident he could clear the crossbar on any kick closer than 55 yards.

"It all depends how the wind is," Gramatica said. "I felt pretty good warming up. I was hitting them pretty solid, so I told the coach I can get them there. The question is whether it will be straight or not."

Dungy's confidence in Gramatica was rewarded when the kicker connected on his fourth and fifth field goals of more than 50 yards, setting a club record in the process and giving the Bucs their third straight victory.

Tampa Bay (6-4) remained tied with Detroit for second place in the NFC Central. However, five teams have a better second in the NFC than the Bucs, who are chasing the sixth and final playoff spot.

"We're still hungry," Brooks said. "We still feel we're in a hole because we're looking up. And we're a very dangerous football team, and we're looking up."

Just as important as Gramatica's foot was the one belonging to Packers quarterback Brett Favre, who left with about 8:40 remaining in the third quarter with a mild sprain after being sacked by Sapp.

The injury is serious enough to possibly end Favre's streak of 135 starts, an NFL record among quarterbacks.

More important for the Bucs, it likely prevented more fourth-quarter heroics by the Packers superstar.

"Favre is the magic man," Bucs defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said. "He's burned us before. So you definitely like that matchup better. The guy comes cold off the bench, and going against our defense, we'll take that over Favre."

Sapp, perhaps Favre's biggest antagonist, said he knew the quarterback might be hurt when his third-down sack ended a drive.

"Whenever you take a quarterback like Brett Favre out and go to Hasselbeck, you better your chances of winning," Sapp said. "When I took him down, I felt his foot underneath me, and when his shoe came off, I said, "He might not be coming back.' Then I looked across the field and saw him with his hat on and ice on his foot and said, "Hey, it doesn't matter who the quarterback is, fellas, we've got to go out and do what we do.' "

Make no mistake, this was a game the Bucs tried to give away.

Quarterback Shaun King staked the Bucs to a 14-3 halftime lead by throwing touchdown passes to Keyshawn Johnson and Reidel Anthony, hitting 11 of 14 passes for 129 yards. But in the second half, King was held to 35 yards passing and was intercepted.

What King couldn't do with his arm, he made up for by using his feet. His third-down scramble for 14 yards set up Gramatica's winning field goal, a 54-yard bomb just inside the right upright.

On the next Packers series, Bucs linebacker Al Singleton stripped running back Ahman Green of the ball, and Ahanotu recovered. On third and 10, King ran for five yards to set up Gramatica's 51-yarder.

"That play kind of speaks to how the game was," Dungy said. "Al Singleton comes in, misses the sack, keeps hustling, causes the fumble down the field and gives us a chance to go five points up. It was that type of game."

Even Gramatica had to recover from adversity. With the Bucs leading 7-0, he tried to recover his onside kick, a play he had worked on in practice all week. But he was unable to pick the ball up, and Green Bay safety Scott McGarrahan pounced on it at the Tampa Bay 39-yard line.

"Martin had worked on it," Dungy said. "It's a kick that he's pretty proficient at. I guess we worked on kicking it enough; we didn't work on catching it quite as much. It's a gamble you take. We had the lead. We thought we could pick up a little momentum. It was there. We just didn't execute."

A penalty for too many men on the field led to the first of three Ryan Longwell field goals, the first from 52 yards.

But Longwell, who became the NFL's all-time most accurate kicker at 84 percent despite a miss from 53 yards, wasn't even the best kicker on the field Sunday.

"It's amazing. We just feel like every time (Gramatica) goes out there, he's going to make it," Dungy said. "I think you saw two of the best kickers in the league today. Fortunately, they missed one, a long one, and that was about the only difference.

"Martin has done an exceptional job for two years. It just seems the bigger the kick, the more confidence he has."

Keeping pace

The Bucs didn't get much help in the playoff race, with only the Giants losing.

St. Louis 8-2 -- W, 38-24

Minnesota 8-2 -- W, 31-14

N.Y. Giants 7-3 -- L, 38-24

New Orleans 7-3 -- W, 20-10

Philadelphia 7-4 -- W, 26-23

Washington 6-4 -- Bye week

Tampa Bay 6-4 -- W, 20-15

Detroit 6-4 -- W, 13-10

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