Just Like Old Times
Under Brad Johnson’s jersey on Sunday was a flak jacket, designed to protect the two fractured ribs on his left side. Underneath that, apparently, was an S on his chest. Apparently feeling no ill effects from the injury that knocked him out of the Philadelphia game two weeks ago and sidelined him for last Sunday’s contest in Carolina, Johnson turned in his finest day as a Buccaneer, perhaps of his career. His five touchdown passes led the Bucs to a 38-24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. With the win, the Bucs moved to 7-2, tying the 1979 team for the best start in franchise history. With Green Bay (6-1) playing on Monday night and New Orleans (6-2) having the week off, Tampa Bay is the first NFC team to reach seven wins. They hold a half-game edge over the Saints in the NFC South race.

Johnson had never before thrown five touchdowns in a game – his career-high of four was set twice before he joined the Buccaneers – and only one other Tampa Bay quarterback had ever hit that mark. Steve DeBerg threw five touchdown passes in an opening-day win over Atlanta in 1987, but no Buc passer had tossed even four in a game since Shaun King against the Vikings on October 29, 2000. The Bucs won that game, 41-13. Since, they’ve made an annual rite of running up high-scoring wins over Minnesota in Raymond James Stadium around Halloween. Last year it was 41-14 on October 28; in all, that’s three victories by the combined score of 120-51. The Bucs have scored as many as 38 points in a game on just two other occasions in that three-year span.

The Bucs needed almost every bit of Johnson’s heroics because the Vikings’ offense was almost as potent. A shootout developed in the second half, with the Bucs lead shrinking and re-inflating but never going lower than two touchdowns. Johnson made sure of that with touchdown passes to WR Keyshawn Johnson and FB Mike Alstott, offsetting two one-yard touchdown runs by RB Moe Williams. Johnson had helped the Bucs build a 24-0 lead by the middle of the second quarter by throwing touchdown passes to WR Karl Williams, TE Rickey Dudley and Keyshawn Johnson. The Bucs quarterback finished the day with remarkable numbers: 24 completions in 31 attempts for 313 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. It all added up to a passer rating of 148.3, just 10 points below the highest possible rating.

Coming into the game, there were valid reasons to believe either side of the argument, that the Bucs would pass with ease against the Vikings or that they would struggle to move the ball through the air. On one hand was Minnesota’s 31st-ranked pass defense, which was surrendering nearly 280 yards per game. On the other was Johnson’s injury and ailments that kept valuable wide receivers Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius out of the game. In addition, the loss of G Kerry Jenkins to an eye injury could have hurt the pass protection. Instead, the Bucs allowed zero sacks after giving up 12 in the past two games. That gave Johnson time to find eight different players, including Keyshawn Johnson for season highs of nine receptions, 133 yards and two touchdowns.

Johnson pushed his season total to three touchdowns, two more than he had in all of 2001. After his two-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter gave him his second score of the season, a relieved and joyful Johnson heaved the football so far into the West stands that it landed in the second level of club seats. Jon Gruden was excited, as well. “I’m very happy to win the football game,” said Gruden. “I’m proud of our team. We overcame some injuries and came to play. It started with the turnover on the opening kickoff. I’m proud of our players and we’re excited about the rest of the season.”

They should be. From 1998 through 2001, 22 NFL teams started the season at 7-2 or better, and all 22 went on to the playoffs. In fact, half of those teams made their conference’s championship game, and six went to the Super Bowl. The Bucs got off to an almost perfect start. LB Jack Golden forced return man Nick Davis to fumble on the opening kickoff, and S Jermaine Phillips recovered at the Vikings’ 21. Three plays later, Johnson zipped a hard seam pass to WR Karl Williams, starting in McCardell’s place, for a 15-yard touchdown.

The Bucs then inflated their lead to 24-0 by the second quarter, and for the rest of the game they did it with long drives. Coming into this contest, Tampa Bay’s touchdown drive of the season was 80 yards; against Minnesota, the team scored on marches of 86, 84 and 82 yards. That 86-yarder also came in the first quarter, giving the Bucs’ their first two-touchdown first period of the year. Two receptions for 39 yards by Keyshawn Johnson set up Dudley’s two-yard catch on third-and-two. In the second quarter, RB Aaron Stecker took his only run of the game 59 yards to the Vikings’ 25, setting up Keyshawn Johnson’s first TD catch. The Bucs led 24-0 at that point.

However, RB Michael Bennett, who finished the game with 114 yards on 10 carries, broke off an 85-yard touchdown run on the next play from scrimmage. The Vikings, who gained 393 yards to the Bucs’ season-best 446, scored all three of their touchdowns on the ground. QB Daunte Culpepper completed 19 of 30 passes for 231 yards but was picked off twice and sacked three times, twice by DE Simeon Rice, who has four in his last two games.

Ronde Barber, one of the headiest players in the NFL, committed a very uncharacteristic error at the end of the first half that resulted in three points for the Vikings - though, in Barber's defense, the Bucs clearly didn't agree with the official ruling on tehe play. On a wild play that ran the last 14 seconds off the clock and would have ended the first half, Barber was flagged for unnecessary roughness when he shoved a Minnesota defender near the end of a dead-ball chase of a loose football. NFL rules stipulate that a half or a game can’t end on a defensive penalty, so the Vikings were given an extra down with no time on the clock, which they used to kick a 26-yard field goal, making it 24-10 at the half.

The Vikings palpably had the momentum at that point despite a two-touchdown deficit, but Brad Johnson gave the Bucs the breathing room they needed in the third quarter by directing a brilliant, 82-yard touchdown drive. Johnson was five-for-five for 93 yards on the drive (there was one holding penalty to overcome), repeatedly threading perfect passes between coverage. Among the big plays was a 40-yard pass over the middle to TE Ken Dilger and two 19-yarders to Keyshawn Johnson, the second for a touchdown on third-and-eight. The resulting three-TD cushion lasted all of three minutes. Culpepper engineered a drive that was just as impressive, a 64-yarder in six plays in which he completed three of four passes for 64 yards. RB Moe Williams ran it in from one yards out to cut the Bucs’ lead back to 31-17. Each team scored once more in the fourth quarter, the Bucs on a five-yard catch by Alstott.

Minnesota then tried to turn the game around with a surprise onside kick, which Vikings S Jack Brewer recovered near midfield. On the next play, however, DT Warren Sapp intercepted a pass that Culpepper threw with Rice draped on his back, setting up the Bucs’ final scoring drive. Barber finished as the tam’s leader with eight tackles, adding a sack and a pass defensed. LB Derrick Brooks also had eight tackles and LB Alshermond Singleton turned in three stops and a fourth-quarter interception. The Bucs will now enjoy their bye week before returning to division play with a visit from the Carolina Panthers. Tampa Bay will not have to take a road trip in the month of November.