It's A Huge Win Because Now Every Single Win Will Matter
Everyone figured when Jon Gruden took over the Bucs, it was all about offense. Cool plays. Fancy pass patterns. Exploding scoreboards. No one talked much about toughness.

On a balmy Monday night, with high stakes against a desperate opponent, the Bucs showed a nasty streak that had pretty much been missing since 1999. The defense - so long the trademark of this team - had to overcome injuries, themselves at times, and an offense that isn't there yet. And, oh, the St. Louis Rams. Situation normal.

The fact they dealt with all that and once again shut down the greatest show on turf for a 26-14 win goes beyond just one game, one win. This was a lot more important than that. You can say it's early in the season if you want to, but it's also far enough along that this game was close to a ``must'' win for the Bucs as you get in September. Gotta keep the tail lights from those Panthers and Saints in sight.

It's OK to admit it. When the NFL first announced the Bucs would leave the NFC Central for a new alignment of lapdogs from Charlotte, New Orleans and Atlanta, you wondered if it included a stipulation the men of pewter didn't have to bother with the regular season. You weren't alone. Certainly, nothing about the Bucs' new division seemed worth worrying about. Just three tomato cans in search of a shotgun.

This is a league, though, where a team can go from five wins one year to Super Bowl champion the next, so you don't want to spot any team too much room. You keep thinking that Carolina will figure out what it's doing right and correct it, but that's what people said about Chicago last year and all the Bears did was win 13 games. Atlanta looked downright scary Sunday night - OK, it was against the Bengals - and New Orleans already has shown the Bucs what it thinks of this whole Tampa Bay cakewalk thing. And since the league is unlikely to transfer the Bucs to a division with Baltimore any time soon, there suddenly appears far less room for missteps than before.

The Bucs of the last few years lived on the high wire, winning here, losing there. All that does is get you an expenses-paid trip to lovely Philadelphia in January. This season is supposed to be about something different. Something better. So far it looks pretty much the same, at least in some major respects.

The Bucs are still winning without the ball. Warren Sapp is still the best defensive tackle in football when he wants to be. Derrick Brooks still brings it at linebacker. And while the offense doesn't look the same as before, it still produces points at about the same rate. That left it up to the defense to carry the ball, so to speak. Now that's something different.

But this is not a morning to quibble much. The Bucs stuck a stake in the Rams, and that throws the whole NFC into disarray. The conference was widely assumed to be the personal property of Mike Martz and his team, but the Rams are 0-3 and in large trouble, their playoff chances already in serious question. You take the Rams out of the picture, and suddenly anyone can be in the Super Bowl. Packers or 49ers? Sure. Eagles? Absolutely. Panthers? OK, that's a stretch. Saints? That's not a stretch. Bucs.

Defense made the Bucs a Super Bowl contender, and if they ever get that far it will be because defense takes them there. When they shut out Baltimore last week, that was nice. Baltimore is a shell of a team. To hold an offense like the Rams in check the way they did, though, shows they still have what they need. They'll need more of it, too.

Atlanta's speed is scary. Michael Vick is doing things no other quarterback can do. New Orleans is going to be there all year. Carolina's defense will make it tough for the Bucs to score, and throws the burden back you-know- where. With this team, as always, that's right where it belongs. When Brooks, on a balky hamstring, snuffed out St. Louis' last gasp - the Rams trailed by five with a minute left before he returned the Bucs' third interception of the night 40 yards for the clinching touchdown, behind a crushing block on Kurt Warner by Sapp, there you had it.

It was Brooks' first play back on the field after the hamstring problem sent him to the bench late in the third quarter. It's never pretty. It's never easy. But somehow it keeps getting done though, and that's all that matters.