At first glance it seems a rather bold statement. Some might even qualify it as a reach. It's not. Far from it. In fact, when Keyshawn Johnson tried to take some of the sting out of the Bucs' 17-14 loss to the Saints on Sunday by guaranteeing the Bucs will make the playoffs this year, he might have been selling his team short. If you think that's a stretch, look at where the 2002 AFC champion Oakland Raiders stood after eight games. That's right - just like the Bucs are now, those Raiders were 4-4 and reeling. And don't think for a second the Bucs haven't noticed that. ``The first thought that came to my mind as I ran off the field today was that we faced a 4-4 team in the Super Bowl last year,'' linebacker Derrick Brooks said. ``So my feeling is, `Why can't that be us?' ''
You won't get an argument out of Johnson, who also made reference to the 2002 Raiders before boldly stating, ``We'll make the playoffs. ``I mean, we are very optimistic about our chances. We are not down at all. We didn't win the game today, but there's still a lot of football left.''
There is as much left as there is gone. Eight games have been played by the Bucs, which means eight remain. An NFL season can be salvaged in eight games. And the Bucs don't need to look at the Raiders for proof. During the 1999, 2000 and 2001 seasons, the Bucs started 4-4 as well, yet made the playoffs each time. And they did that despite suffering losses similar to the one suffered Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, where the Bucs were done in mostly by turnovers. The Bucs gave the ball away six times Sunday and while the Saints turned just two of those into points, the giveaways haunted them throughout. ``It's hard to get any kind of momentum going when you're shooting yourself in the foot and turning the ball over,'' Jon Gruden said. ``It's unfortunate. It's inexcusable.''
Missing a 36-yard field goal attempt is equally inexcusable, and the Bucs were guilty of doing that as well Sunday. It was sixth miss in 12 tries for Martin Gramatica this year, and Gruden didn't deny the impact such a miss can have. ``When you're playing in the NFL, those kinds of things will kill you,'' Gruden said.
The Saints can attest to that. They missed a field goal attempt as well Sunday, and while it didn't cost them the game it certainly cost them a lot of anguish. With 3:53 remaining, John Carney was wide left on a 39-yard try that would have all but sealed the victory for the Saints. Buoyed by that miss, the Bucs got the ball and immediately traveled 70 yards to tie the game at 14. The game-tying score came on a 30-yard Brad Johnson-to-Keenan McCardell pass on a fourth-and-10 play that seemed to shift the momentum in the Bucs' favor.
But with no timeouts and only two minutes remaining, the Saints drove 43 yards to get into position for Carney's game-deciding 47-yard field goal. Along the way, Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks connected on four consecutive passes, including one to Michael Lewis that went for 18 yards on third-and-one from the Bucs' 37. It was only the second time all day that Brooks connected on two or more consecutive pass attempts, and the fact he was facing an injury-depleted Bucs secondary no doubt helped.
For the second time in as many games, free safety John Lynch watched from the sidelines. And before the game was done, Lynch's backup, Jermaine Phillips, was out with a broken right forearm. That left newcomer David Gibson to man center field, but the fact Gibson came on board just three days ago had nothing to do with the Bucs' inability to stop the Saints. Or so the Bucs say. ``Guys get hurt in this league; there's just no way around that,'' cornerback Ronde Barber said. ``And when they do, somebody has to step up. You have to learn to love adversity.''
Whether they love adversity or not, the Bucs have certainly had quite a long affair with it this year. Phillips, who is expected to miss four to six weeks, became the sixth starter lost to injury this year. The fifth was left tackle Roman Oben, who tried to play with a broken right hand last week but was scratched from the lineup Sunday and will not play again until he is healthy, Gruden said. That means the Bucs may have to go with the makeshift offensive line they used Sunday for at least another week or two.
Brad Johnson, who struggled until the fourth quarter Sunday, gave the line mostly good marks for the day, saying at least two of his four sacks were the result of good coverage down field. Gruden also backed the play of his linemen, who didn't find out until after they arrived for the game that they'd be playing in a different alignment than usual. ``I don't know that it had any bearing on the game, honestly,'' Gruden said of the line changes, which had Kenyatta Walker at left tackle, Kerry Jenkins at left guard, Cosey Coleman at right guard and Cornell Green at right tackle.
The bigger issue remains consistency. It's something the Bucs simply haven't developed, and Gruden blamed that on his team's rash of injuries. ``It's a team we're all getting to know, honestly,'' he said. ``We have four new starters on the line, a new fullback, a new third receiver, a new second tight end and three or four new guys on defense. I mean, I just met the new guy, Gibson, today. It impacts your play on special teams. It takes the wind out of your sails a little bit. But I liked the way we came back today. That showed heart and character. We've got a lot of that around here, and we're going to need it because what this all means is that we're now going to have to fight our butts off to get into that Super Bowl tournament. But I think we can do that.''
Keyshawn agrees with his coach. Imagine that.