The game report
“Revenge is a dish best served cold.” - Pierre de LaClos
“And in three courses.” - Tampa Bay Buccaneers

On January 23, 2000, the final day of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ marvelous 1999 season, the St. Louis Rams denied the visiting Bucs their first Super Bowl appearance with a come-from-behind 11-6 win. Since then, the Buccaneers have made an annual rite of exacting their vengeance on the Rams on a national stage.

On Monday, the Buccaneers defeated the Rams, 26-14, in Raymond James Stadium on ABC’s Monday Night Football, marking the third straight season Tampa Bay has dispatched St. Louis in prime time. The Bucs also won Monday night affairs on December 18, 2000 (38-35 in Tampa) and November 26, 2001 (24-17 in St. Louis). Like those first two helpings of revenge, this year’s victory over their growing archrival ranks as one of the most thrilling contests in franchise history, in doubt until two fourth-quarter interceptions sealed the deal. “I’m really proud of our players,” said Head Coach Jon Gruden, who high-fived a roaring Buccaneer crowd as he left the field. “They got a lot of help tonight from the 12th man, the fans were great. This is a very emotional win for us. To get a victory on Monday night early in the season in front of your home fans is hopefully a momentum builder for us.”

Of the three previous games, this one most resembled the NFC Championship Game of ’99, with the obvious exception that the Bucs held on to win. On that night, as on this one, Tampa Bay’s defense frustrated the high-powered Rams attack all night, holding Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk to just one touchdown in the first three quarters. Nursing a 13-7 lead four minutes into the fourth quarter, the Bucs were once again trying to hold off the Rams as they started to march downfield. CB Brian Kelly, who infamously was barely beaten on the deciding touchdown in that playoff contest, cut in front of a pass intended for RB Trung Canidate and returned the interception 31 yards to the Rams’ one-yard line. FB Mike Alstott ran it in on the second play for his Buc-record-extending 51st touchdown, giving the Bucs a 12-point lead with 10 minutes remaining.

The Rams, who had driven 91 yards on their first possession for a touchdown, put together their only other scoring drive following Alstott’s touchdown, an 11-play march that resulted in RB Lamar Gordon’s 21-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-one. While the Rams pulled back within six on the score, they also used all but four minutes off the clock. The Rams got one last possession with two-and-a-half minutes to go, but LB Derrick Brooks ended St. Louis’ comeback hopes with an interception return of 39 yards for a touchdown. Brooks, who had left the game at the end of the third quarter with a strained hamstring, came back onto the field just for that play, and wasn’t able to get up more than a half-speed trot on the return. DT Warren Sapp, who had one of the Bucs’ five sacks of Warner, knocked the Rams’ QB to the ground at the five to usher Brooks into the end zone. The Bucs’ Pro Bowl linebacker now has an interception in each of the Bucs’ three games and touchdowns in the last two. Brooks basically put himself back into the game just before the interception. “He has that authority,” said Gruden. “When he’s ready to go, I’ve got to let him play.”

The reason Warner’s last two interceptions were intended for backup running backs was because RB Marshall Faulk had left the game in the first quarter with a sore neck. Faulk had ended the Rams’ first drive with a six-yard touchdown sweep. The Bucs also dealt with a series of significant injuries throughout the night, including Brooks’ hamstring pull. G Kerry Jenkins suffered a cracked left fibula in the first half and was replaced by Todd Washington, and T Kenyatta Walker sustained a sprained ankle in the fourth quarter and was replaced by Cornell Green.

Tampa Bay scored first in the game but held the lead for only a few minutes. The Bucs opening drive was an impressive mix of plays, including three passes to TE Ken Dilger and a 17-yard completion to WR Keenan McCardell. QB Brad Johnson, picking up where he left off in Baltimore last Sunday, was impressively accurate, completing five of six passes on the drive and 16 of 21 in the first half. However, as it had on the first march against the Ravens, the Bucs’ opening drive sputtered to a stop outside the red zone and the Bucs had to settle for a field goal.

That was the story on Tampa Bay’s second drive, as well, a march that ended in Martin Gramatica’s 47-yard shot on the first play of the second quarter. And, since the Rams’ offense easily sliced 91 yards for a touchdown on its first possession, the failure to get into the end zone seemed to be an issue once again. However, Tampa Bay’s defense came up big for the rest of the half. Tampa Bay’s first stop of the Rams’ offense, near midfield early in the second quarter, nearly was a game-turning play, as CB Ronde Barber cut inside WR Isaac Bruce to get to Warner’s short out pass first. However, the pass went through Barber’s hands, denying the Buc standout a wide-open path to the end zone. The Rams had to punt, but got the ball back quickly and drove quickly into the Bucs’ red zone.

This time, however, the Bucs completed the turnover, as DE Simeon Rice snared his second career interception and returned it 30 yards to the Bucs’ 44. It was, potentially, a 14-point swing and was in effect the turning point of the game, even if some last-minute heroics were necessary to put it to bed. Tampa Bay followed Rice’s pick with an impressive six-play, 56-yard touchdown drive. WR Keyshawn Johnson kept the drive alive with perhaps his best catch yet as a Buccaneer, a sliding, fingertip grab for 21 yards on third-and-14, and RB Michael Pittman put the Bucs inside the 10 with a hard-nosed, 14-yard run. One play later, newly-acquired TE Rickey Dudley scored on his first Buc catch, a wide-open nine-yarder in the right side of the end zone.

The Rams had 51 seconds left in the first half and the ball at their own 34, but were unable to dent the Bucs’ halftime, 13-7 lead, thanks to a sudden surge in Tampa Bay’s pass rush. Buc rushers hit Warner three times in five plays, knocking two passes astray, the second of which was intercepted by S Dexter Jackson on the last play of the half. The Bucs’ four interceptions were their most since last December 23, when they did the same thing to New Orleans QB Aaron Brooks.

While the second-half was mostly dominated by the Bucs’ defense, the Tampa Bay offense outdid St. Louis’ attack in the first half, scoring on three of four possessions. Johnson was sharp for the third straight week, completing 23 of 32 passes for 139 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. He also avoided all but one sack despite some early pressure. By failing to turn the ball over, Johnson set a new Buccaneer record with 179 consecutive passes without an interception, breaking the previous mark of 152 by Trent Dilfer in 1997. Though the Buccaneers gained only 63 rushing yards, RB Michael Pittman picked up 53 yards on 11 tough carries and added 28 yards on a team-high six receptions. TE Ken Dilger caught five passes for 38 yards as Johnson hit his tight ends eight times on the night.