Complete game
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 22 November 2004

It was the kind of game that makes you want to believe in the Bucs. Believe that the defense is a slumbering monster that can spit turnovers and snarl touchdowns. Believe that Joe Jurevicius won't wait another 24 games between trips to the end zone because there are more soldiers to salute and more flyovers to moisten his eyes. Believe that Mike Alstott's legs are pistons that will never stop churning out big plays. And if you want to pretend the 1-9 49ers are a worthy opponent and not a weekly mismatch like bug vs. windshield, believe that, too.

After watching Tampa Bay thoroughly dominate the 49ers 35-3 Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, the only fact that seems hard to believe is the Bucs' 4-6 record. "Who's to say we can't start a New England streak? Who's to say that?" safety Dwight Smith said of the Patriots' 21-game win streak. "We feel like we have the team and the pride and heart to do that. So we're going to keep fighting, keep digging until we are eliminated."

In fact, Sunday went so well for the Bucs that after beating the Niners, they gained ground on eight teams in the wild-card race: Cardinals, Bears, Lions, Giants, Saints, Cowboys, Redskins and Rams. All last week, players watched footage of Bucs defenses that had dominated the league. Then they went out and played like one. On the second series, linebacker Derrick Brooks sacked Tim Rattay, forcing a fumble that was recovered by nose tackle Chartric Darby. One play later, with Alstott paving the way in his first game back from a knee injury, Michael Pittman ran for a 14-yard touchdown to give the Bucs a 7-0 lead 3:17 into the game. Pittman finished with 106 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.

But it was Jurevicius who put a lump in everyone's throat and the game out of reach by halftime. Since returning from back and knee surgery three games ago, he had caught just six passes for 67 yards and no touchdowns. The low point came in the 24-14 loss Nov.14 at Atlanta, in which Jurevicius rarely saw the field and had only one reception for 3 yards. But Sunday, Jurevicius scored on receptions of 9 and 42 yards from Brian Griese, the second with just 17 seconds remaining before halftime. It was Jurevicius' first trips to the end zone since he scored twice at Philadelphia during the 2003 season opener.

After his first touchdown, he sprinted to the southeast corner of the end zone and presented the ball to Air Force Capt. Ryan Silver of the 333rd Fighter Squadron. "I saw the flyover on the jumbo screen, and I saw him standing over there earlier in the game," Jurevicius said. "For some reason, flyovers tend to give me tears and water the eyes up because you realize how awesome and how powerful those guys are. It was just a simple thing for me to do."

What had been more difficult for Jurevicius was getting involved in the offense. He met with coach Jon Gruden after practice Thursday to plead his case but took issue with Sunday's St. Petersburg Times headline and story: "Frustrated Jurevicius lights into Gruden." "That whole story was b.s.," Jurevicius said. "There was no lighting into Jon Gruden. The biggest thing was I talked to Jon Gruden just like I'm talking to you guys right now. There was a lot made of it. I don't like saying something because I don't like media attention. The only thing that was right in the article was that I'm a quiet guy. I don't say much. Whatever was intended for Coach Gruden was intended between the two of us. But if it got me a few passes, it got me a few passes."

Gruden also took issue with the report during his postgame news conference. "I saw some cutting-edge reporting in the paper about how he got after me," Gruden said. "That didn't really happen to the extent that it was reported. Jurevicius is coming back to life as a football player. He's been very frustrated with the injuries that he's had. He delivered (Sunday), and hopefully, that's a good sign of things to come."

But the best sign was the play of the Bucs defense. Sure, it was the 49ers, who might have had trouble getting a first down against air. But Tampa Bay held San Francisco to 26 yards during the first half, 14 on the final play when it picked up its only first down without the aid of a penalty. The Bucs sacked Rattay five times, and cornerback Torrie Cox capped the scoring with a 55-yard interception return for a touchdown. "This is how we want to finish the whole season," Smith said. "We feel we have the play-making ability. We feel when the defense is playing well, the whole team clicks regardless of how the offense is playing or the special teams is playing. We feel the heartbeat of this team is the defense, and when we're doing what we're supposed to do, nobody can really beat us."

The Bucs also might be getting healthy at the right time. Receiver Joey Galloway had three catches for 33 yards, one for 22 yards on second and 21. Alstott is running. Jurevicius, who led the Bucs with five catches for 82 yards, is scoring. "I'm excited about not only having Joe Jurevicius back, but Joey Galloway coming back and getting some more reps and some more confidence in this offense," Griese said. "You get a couple of those guys with (rookie) Mike Clayton, and you have some players. The only way for you to blow out a team in the NFL is to play well in all three areas, and that's what we did."

As the final seconds ticked away, the 49ers had the ball first and goal at the 1. The Bucs had mostly emptied their bench on defense. But twice, they stuffed Maurice Hicks to end the game. Unbelievable?

Not for the Bucs. "You can be excited," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "You can't do anything about the past. I know we've lost six games. We haven't lost seven. We may someday lose that seventh game. We haven't yet. I don't look at the wins. I look at the losses. We haven't lost seven, so let's just keep playing hard."