Bucs 19 Giants 13
Charles Lee’s relationship with Jon Gruden is off to a great start. Lee, the fourth-year wideout playing meaningful minutes for the first time all season, caught a short slant and turned it into a 53-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter, giving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a 14-3 halftime lead. The Bucs went on to defeat the New York Giants, 19-13, to end a three-game losing streak and keep their damaged playoff hopes alive. The Bucs won a battle of 4-6 teams on Monday Night Football, moving to 5-6 and remaining reasonably alive in the NFC race. At 4-7, the Giants are likely all but eliminated.

Lee, who was cut twice by the Buccaneers earlier this season, got an opportunity as Tampa Bay’s third receiver after the early-week decision to deactivate Keyshawn Johnson for the remainder of the season. Lee finished with five catches for 91 yards, also making a diving, 20-yard catch in the fourth quarter. New starter Joe Jurevicius pitched in with three catches for 43 yards and consistent producer Keenan McCardell had a game-high nine receptions for 83 yards. Those three helped QB Brad Johnson complete 22 of 32 passes for 269 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Lee’s touchdown was just the second of his four-year NFL career and his first as a Buccaneer. His last score came as a Green Bay Packer during the 2001 season. While Lee had the big play, McCardell and Jurevicius proved to be an effective starting tandem. Both players made important, tackle-breaking plays on a fourth-down drive that killed much of the game’s final seven minutes. McCardell pulled to within two catches of 700 for his career, a number that only four other active receivers can claim.

Defensively, the Bucs held the Giants to 212 total yards, including just 62 in the second half. That was accomplished by more familiar heroes, including DT Warren Sapp, DE Simeon Rice and S John Lynch. For good measure, S Dwight Smith, last year’s Super Bowl hero and one of the team’s more consistent performers this year, intercepted one pass and broke up another touchdown with a hard hit.

The fourth quarter got a bit queasy, as it has been wont to do for the Bucs this year, particularly in Raymond James Stadium. New York closed the gap to 17-13 midway through the final period on CB Frank Walker’s 56-yard interception return. However, the Giants’ final three drives were good for only eight plays and negative three yards. Lynch picked off a Collins pass at midfield with two-and-a-half minutes to play. However, Tampa Bay elected to go for it on fourth-and-one from the Giants 12 and RB Michael Pittman was stuffed, giving the visitors one more chance. Sapp’s second sack of the day made it fourth-and-19 from the three, and the Giants, after calling a timeout, chose to snap the ball out of the end zone for a safety. That gambit allowed the Giants to try a free kick from their own 20, but an onside attempt was recovered by Buc TE Ken Dilger at the 29. Tampa Bay simply ran out the clock from there.

Sapp also chased QB Kerry Collins out of the pocket on the play that produced Smith’s third-quarter interception in the Bucs’ end zone. Sapp had a huge impact on the game, registering five tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles. One of his stops came on a third-and-one run by Tiki Barber midway through the fourth quarter, with the Bucs clinging to a four-point lead. Sapp’s second sack, the one that forced the Giants’ hand on the intentional safety, also came at a very opportune time. Sapp’s two sacks gave him five on the season and 77 in his career since being drafted by the Bucs in 1995. Sapp now needs just two more sacks to become Tampa Bay’s all-time leader in that category, surpassing Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon (78.5). “I tip my hat to Warren,” said Gruden. “He’s a tempo-setter around here. That’s a Buccaneer that we’re going to try to model future Buccaneers after.”

Though Pittman was stopped on his final carry, he still finished with 55 yards on 19 carries. The Bucs alternated three backs – Pittman, Thomas Jones and Aaron Stecker – freely, twice even running the three in succession. All told, Tampa Bay ran for 93 yards, though it average only 2.4 yards per carry. Pittman, who also caught two passes for 22 yards, went over 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the third time in his career. The Bucs also scored their first rushing touchdown since Week Three, another long-awaited development. Jones got it in the second quarter on a third-and-one dive for a one-yard touchdown, his first as a Buccaneer. The only other two rushing TDs of the season came in the Week Three win at Atlanta, and both were produced by Mike Alstott, who is now on injured reserve.

Jones' touchdown also came on a drive that was preserved by three New York penalties. The Buccaneers and Giants came into the game with similar penalty problems, both ranking in the league’s top three most-flagged teams. Fortunately for Tampa Bay, they managed to avoid the yellow hankies early while the Giants committed the self-destructive fouls. New York finished with nine penalties for 71 yards, while the Bucs committed five infractions for 45 yards. That was still too many for Gruden, however. “Offensively, we had some very good moments, although we did some very, very illogical things in key moments, penalties and turning the ball over,” said Gruden. “The plus is, we won the game. There were a lot of good things on both sides of the ball. The big minus tonight was turnovers. Turnovers really cost us. We also had some key penalties that put us behind and in long-yardage situations. Those are things that really typify a 5-6 football team.”

The Bucs’ defensive dominance overshadowed the first significant meeting between twin brothers Ronde and Tiki Barber, the former a Buccaneer cornerback and the latter a Giant running back. R. Barber finished with four tackles, including one on Barber on a first-quarter sweep, and T. Barber had 55 rushing yards and three catches for another 34 yards. mith single-handedly denied the Giants’ two touchdowns with plays in the end zone. Midway through the second quarter, Smith hit WR Amani Toomer just as Toomer caught a pass in the end zone, and the force of the blow separated the receiver from both the ball and his helmet. In the third quarter, Smith intercepted a pass in the end zone that was intended for WR Ike Hilliard. Smith increased his team-leading total to four interceptions.

The Bucs also turned the ball over three times, including fumbles by McCardell and WR Reggie Barlow, both on passes that would have gained first downs near midfield. Each turnover netted the Giants three points on a pair of 30-yard field goals by Matt Bryant. The Giants also scored off their third turnover of the night when Walker got his fourth-quarter pick. Nevertheless, the Giants couldn’t rally, unlike many of the Bucs’ opponents this season. The Bucs took a 14-6 lead at halftime and never trailed.

Gruden had spent the week emphasizing the need to get off to a faster start, and his team responded. The Bucs technically failed to score in the first quarter for the fifth straight game, but a drive begun in the first period ended in Jones’ touchdown early in the second. Lee’s scoring catch gave Tampa Bay 14 points at the intermission, its highest first-half total since the October 6 game against Indianapolis.

The Bucs are still three games behind the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South, and their two losses to the Panthers in effect makes it four. Tampa Bay may be wondering if it is in the wrong division at this point, as the Bucs have now defeated every team in the NFC East this season. Tampa Bay downed Philadelphia in both team’s season-opener, also a Monday Night Football game, then prevailed in Washington in Week Six and beat Dallas at home in Week Eight.