Big, Easy Win
It will be weeks, maybe even months, before anyone knows for sure. You got the feeling, though, that what happened at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday might have been the start of something special.

At the very least, you walked away from the Bucs' stunning 31-14 victory against the New Orleans Saints knowing that this latest edition has the potential to be something special. That's how thoroughly convincing, how complete and how invigorating this emphatic victory over the reigning but suddenly reeling NFC South division champions was.

'A lot of people had a bad feeling about us, especially after we didn't show much during a 20-6 loss last week at Seattle,' cornerback Ronde Barber said. 'So this was as important a game as we'll play in terms of proving ourselves. And that's pretty much how we looked at it. And anyone who's watched us the last few years has seen it. They've seen us show some flashes here and there. But we haven't put it all together the way we did here today.'

The final statistics don't tell the whole tale; they are actually a little misleading. They show the Saints out-rushing the Bucs, out-throwing the Bucs and possessing the ball for six minutes longer than the Bucs.

What they don't show is how well the Bucs (1-1) tackled on defense and how well they capitalized on offense, especially after the defense created opportunities for them by taking the ball away from the Saints (0-2). 'The way we started, the way we got off the field on third down and the way we converted after getting the ball back for the offense, that's exactly what we're looking for here,' Barber said.

The final stat sheet also didn't show how clutch, how inspiring and how gutsy the Bucs played in this divisional battle. Cornerback Phillip Buchanon was as clutch as they come, stepping in for an ailing Brian Kelly (groin strain) at left corner and breaking up two pass plays while recording a tackle.

Receiver Michael Clayton, meanwhile, was among the Bucs' most inspiring players. He threw a block that separated safety Kevin Kaesviharn from his equipment to help free Joey Galloway on a 69-yard touchdown play that gave the Bucs a 14-0 lead.

And then there was quarterback Jeff Garcia, who epitomized the term gutsy when he scrambled for the end zone on a third-and-6 play from the New Orleans 8 early in the first quarter. Garcia came up a yard short of the end zone, but his decision to dive head-first on the play just one week after taking a hit that knocked him woozy and out of the game set the tone for the day.

'That was the biggest play of the game,' Bucs coach Jon Gruden said of Garcia's run. 'He went in there head first trying to get the first down, and you just don't go in there like that as a quarterback. I thought he got knocked out, honestly. But that sent a message to our defense. I mean, if our quarterback is going to stick his face in there for us, then we're going to stick our face in there for him.'

The defense stuck its face in there all right. Led by middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who recorded a team-high 11 tackles, the Bucs stuck their collective heads in and forced three fumbles (two by Ruud) and picked off one Drew Brees pass.

Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said 'This felt just like old times,' and that the defense spent the day feeding off the play of Garcia. But Garcia seemed to feed more off the play of the defense.

It was Garcia who helped turn both of the Bucs takeaways into touchdowns, thus eliminating what was perhaps the biggest problem they had against Seattle. 'Last week our defense was outstanding,' Garcia said. 'They gave us a chance to win that football game, but offensively we didn't do what we need to do, especially early in the game.

'Today it was a matter of taking care of business when we got in the red zone. That first score for us, getting into the red zone and pounding it in for a touchdown - that was big for us. We need to build off of that.'

They already have. With Cadillac Williams running in from 1 yard out on each occasion, the Bucs put the ball in the end zone on each of their first two red-zone opportunities Sunday. The Bucs settled for a fourth-quarter field goal after reaching the red zone for a third time, but the outcome of this game had been decided.

Sandwiched between those two Williams' TD runs were a pair of touchdown passes to Galloway that helped conjure memories for Garcia. 'It was like the old 49ers right there, with Jerry Rice and John Taylor catching the slant and going all the way,' Garcia said. 'That's what Joey can do for you.'

Galloway countered by saying his success was all a result of what Garcia can do for a team. No matter how you look at it, though, it was a sign of what the Bucs can do. 'We've been talking a lot lately about how explosive we can be offensively,' Clayton said. 'Up until now, we just haven't shown it. But today we executed and we showed exactly what we're capable of doing.'

Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 17 September 2007