Gold Crush
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 22 November 2004

Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. After all, the Bucs are two games below .500 and still looking up at the leaders in the muddled NFC wild card picture. But what the Bucs (4-6) did in routing the lowly 49ers 35-3 at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday is precisely what playoff contenders do. They win games they're supposed to win. They beat teams they're supposed to beat. And if they hope to build some momentum heading into the stretch drive, they do it as handily as the Bucs did in embarrassing San Francisco (1-9).

The final tallies for total yards and average yards per play were lopsided enough - the Bucs nearly doubled the 49ers in both areas - but it was the first half that really told the tale and defined this game. During those first 30 minutes, the Bucs outgained San Francisco 239-26, produced 13 first downs to two for the 49ers, and limited San Francisco to 1.2 yards per play while gaining an average of 6.5 yards themselves.

The score at halftime was 21-0, and it probably would have been worse had quarterback Brian Griese not thrown two interceptions, including one that 49ers defensive back Tony Parrish picked off in the end zone. But it wasn't like the Bucs let up in the second half. In sealing the victory during the final 30 minutes, they scored on their first offensive drive, produced four of their five sacks and returned an interception for a touchdown. ``This is the first time all year that I feel like we played as a whole team for 60 minutes,'' Dwight Smith said. ``Offense, defense, special teams - it was all there. This was an example of what we're really capable of doing.''

It was the Bucs' most-lopsided victory since they beat the Bears 41-0 on Sept. 10, 2000, and while Jon Gruden refused to categorize it as a dominant performance, his players expressed no such reservations. ``We functioned together as a unit, and now we can go home knowing that we did everything it took to not only get a victory but to dominate,'' Simeon Rice said. ``It's been a long time since we dominated on both sides of the ball like that,'' linebacker Derrick Brooks said. ``But we are still not where we need to be.''

Bucs general manager Bruce Allen acknowledged as much. He said prior to Sunday's game that it will probably take a 9-7 record to earn an NFC wild- card berth. That means the Bucs have a lot of ground to make up. But Sunday's action around the NFL showed just how quickly that ground can be gained. While the Bucs were winning, most fellow wild-card contenders lost. So the Bucs gained ground in the playoff hunt and much-needed momentum as they head into the stretch run. ``This was really big for us in that regard,'' Greg Spires said when asked about the momentum boost the victory provided. ``We know if we keep digging and digging, we'll be just fine.''

The Bucs will have to dig hard, because they're not likely to face another team like San Francisco. The 49ers came to town ranked near the bottom in virtually every offensive and defensive category, and many a Buc acknowledged that. ``Let's take this for what it is,'' Dwight Smith said. ``That wasn't one of the best offenses we've faced, so we can't let this game go to our heads. We've still got a lot of hard work to do.''

Hard work is something the Bucs have never shied away from, and there seems to be little doubt that the work the Bucs have been putting in individually and as a team is starting to pay dividends. Joe Jurevicius, who has worked tirelessly to get himself back into shape after being sidelined by knee and back ailments, played a huge role Sunday, catching five passes, two for touchdowns.

Michael Pittman, who quickly worked his way back into form after serving a three- game suspension, ran 21 times for 106 yards and two touchdowns and aided an offense that gained an average of 6.1 yards per play. And after working hours in the film room last week, the Bucs defense came out so prepared that it never saw a play from the 49ers that it did not recognize. ``We tried to be wired in on what they were going to do,'' Smith said. ``We keyed on that, and it just so happened that they came in and did exactly what we saw on film all week.''

It wasn't just the film of the 49ers that gave the Bucs an edge. Gruden put together a reel filled mostly with highlights from the Bucs' Super Bowl season and showed it to his players throughout the week. ``The idea was to give us a feeling for what this team has done in the past,'' defensive tackle Chidi Ahanotu said. ``We have a tradition around here, and he was urging us to live up to our tradition. I think it worked.''