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The die is cast

A 27-3 pasting by the Bears hinders the Bucs' already teetering playoff hopes and ends their NFC Central stay on a sour note.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 17, 2001

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CHICAGO -- The division was too tough for the Bucs. Now anyone can do the math.

Tampa Bay was eliminated from the NFC Central race Sunday with a 27-3 beating by the Bears at Soldier Field in their final appearance in the black-and-blue division.

At 7-6, the Bucs' playoff hopes probably will evaporate unless they rebound with a win against New Orleans next Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

The Saints (7-5) host the Rams tonight and can move a game ahead of Tampa Bay for the final NFC wild card.

On the field where they clinched the Central title two years ago, the Bucs watched Chicago rookie running back Anthony Thomas rush for 173 yards and a touchdown to enable the Bears (10-3) to retake the Central lead and clinch at least a playoff spot for the first time since 1994.

Instead of a celebratory Gatorade dunking of their coach, the Bucs had to endure the humiliation of being doused with beer and debris on their final walk off Soldier Field.

"All week long, that was one of our motivating factors. You wanted to leave this division, leave Soldier Field with a good taste in our mouth," safety John Lynch said. "But that didn't become the reality today."

Instead, the Bucs committed four turnovers (two fumbles and two interceptions), and their anemic offense failed to score a touchdown for the second time in three weeks.

Without a semblance of a running game, ranked 30th in the NFL and falling, quarterback Brad Johnson completed 18 of 40 passes for 191 yards. In his past four games, Johnson has thrown one TD and seven interceptions.

As has been the case all season, his primary outlet Sunday was receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who caught seven passes for 119 yards.

But even when things were right, they went wrong for the Bucs. Trailing 10-3, Keyshawn Johnson turned a short reception into a 47-yard gain to the Chicago 8-yard line until he was stripped of the ball by Bears cornerback Walt Harris.

It was the third turnover in the first half for the stumbling Bucs. Trailing 3-0 on first down from the Chicago 31, Brad Johnson was intercepted in the end zone trying to hit receiver Karl Williams. The quarterback also lost a fumble when he was sacked and stripped of the ball at the Bears 27.

"The turnovers hurt us, especially because they happened in their area," Brad Johnson said. "We had two on about the 30-yard line and had one on about the 10. So it took some points away from us and probably some momentum, especially right at the half. We have a chance to knock it down to within a one-possession game.

"We tried to make plays and it seemed like nothing would work. For us, offensively, it felt like there was about 20 guys out there with about 50 different arms batting down the balls."

In the second half, the Bears clamped down harder on Keyshawn Johnson and the Bucs were done.

"(Brad) would be in the huddle and say, 'It's you and me.' That's all he had," Keyshawn Johnson said. "And he was looking down a barrel at me.

"They started doubling me a little more and playing cover-two, and cover-two man. Some of the routes we were running didn't work against cover-two man."

Still trailing 13-3 at halftime, the Bucs tried to make a statement with the first possession in the third quarter. That statement turned out to be that they didn't have a clue on offense.

On the first play of the second half, running back Warrick Dunn, who had no carrries behind rookie fullback Jameel Cook, took a pitch from Johnson and lost 3 yards.

Bucs fans can figure out the rest. Tampa Bay went three and out, the Bears drove 69 yards in nine plays and quarterback Jim Miller connected on an 18-yard TD pass to tight end Fred Baxter for the knockout blow.

With 8:11 left in the third quarter, the Bucs were finished and knew it.

Thomas, who was held to 27 yards in the first half, ran over the Bucs for 146 yards in the second half.

"We haven't had a loss like this in a long time, where basically at 10 minutes in the third quarter, we were out of it," coach Tony Dungy said. "We weren't able to stop them and get the ball back to our offense in the fourth quarter."

Though the Bucs' three remaining games are at RJS, they all are against teams with playoff possibilities.

And Bucs players have begun to doubt they can improve their offense under coordinator Clyde Christensen. Sunday marked the seventh time in 13 games the Bucs scored one offensive touchdown or less.

Keyshawn Johnson described the attack as "doo-doo," and Dunn said the team lacks bread-and-butter plays to get them going.

"We can't say Brad and Key because Key has been doubled and triple-teamed now," Dunn said. "They're taking it away. We have to think of other ways."

Keyshawn Johnson was just as condemning.

"I have no idea what the hell is going on with the offense. We're not doing very good," he said. "Not today, not tomorrow, not any day. I just don't know why."

As the clock wore down, Soldier Field erupted with the announcement that the Bears had clinched a playoff spot.

A minute later, Tampa Bay left the field and the NFC Central for good.

"The worst way to go out," Dunn said. "It's not a good taste. I was actually thinking on the sideline, I remember two years ago we won the division here on this field. I was like, 'Wow, must be payback time.' "

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