Winning Formula Lifts Bucs Again
The wise old architect of the Bucs defense drew up another winning design Sunday. As he's done for years, Monte Kiffin figured out a way to cool off one of the league's hottest offenses, helping the Bucs to a 23-20 victory at Raymond James Stadium. The only thing Kiffin didn't cool on Sunday was the burning speculation that he'll soon be leaving the Bucs for a job with his son Lane at the University of Tennessee.

Given a chance to quell the rumors that suggest he will be named the Volunteers new defensive coordinator, perhaps as soon as today, Monte Kiffin succeeded only in steering the conversation away from himself and toward the victory that kept the Bucs in a first place tie with Carolina in the NFC South.

"It's not fair to our players," Kiffin said when asked about Tennessee. "Tonight is not about Monte Kiffin. It's about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jon Gruden, our offense, defense and special teams and a great, great win."

It was a big win, too. It improved the Bucs to 9-3 on the season and guaranteed head coach Gruden his first back-to-back winning seasons as Bucs coach. It also sets the stage for a critical game Monday at Carolina. By beating the Panthers, who also improved to 9-3 by beating the Packers on Sunday, the Bucs can go a long way toward wrapping up their second-consecutive division title.

"We have the situation we want," said cornerback Ronde Barber, whose tip of a ball in the end zone led to one of three Bucs interceptions. "We can do it ourselves and that's the best scenario we can ask for. We don't have to wait for anybody or get help from anybody."

The Bucs didn't appear to need any help on Sunday, especially on defense. Though they were aided in part by wind, driving rain and a soggy playing field, they limited the Saints to 332 total yards, 79 fewer than their previous per-game average.

The Bucs offense turned only one of the defense's three takeaways into points, but they proved to be the winning points as Matt Bryant kicked a 37-yard field goal to win the game in the wake of Jermaine Phillips' pick of a Drew Brees pass late in the fourth quarter. "We all knew [Brees] was going to throw the ball 45 times and when you throw the ball that much you're going to give us opportunities to make plays," Barber said. "We relish opportunities like that."

The Bucs seem to relish the idea of rallying to win, too. They had staked their opponent to a lead in each of their previous three games and they stretched the streak to four on Sunday by allowing the Saints to take an early 3-0 lead.

Even in giving up that advantage, though, the Bucs defense was stellar. It allowed the Saints to move the ball well during their first two drives but stiffened when it had to. After allowing them to reach the Bucs' 30 on their first possession, the Bucs stopped the Saints cold, holding them to no gain on a second-and-1 play, forcing an incompletion on third-and-1 and dropping them for a loss on fourth-and-1.

They did pretty much the same on the next Saints drive, stopping running back Reggie Bush for a 3-yard loss on a third-and-1 play that forced New Orleans to settle for that field goal. Coming after the Saints had taken the ball away on a fumble at the Bucs 41, the save by the defense proved critical and sent a message to the Saints that yards and points would not come easy this time out. "You have to credit Tampa Bay for making the plays," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "They're a good team and they showed that today."

The wet field conditions and a driving rain made it hard for both teams to move the ball as the game progressed, but the Bucs eventually tied on a 38-yard field goal from Matt Bryant and took the lead a little more than two minutes before halftime on 23-yard Bryant field goal.

Given those two-plus minutes, the Saints found their footing and quickly took the lead back before the break, finishing a six-play drive by having Drew Brees throw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore. Despite the wet conditions the Bucs ran the ball well in the first half, gaining an average of 5.3 yards per carry, a number boosted largely by Garcia's five runs for 32 yards.

The Saints were held to just four yards rushing during the first 30 minutes but they averaged 11 yards per pass reception, with Brees completing 14 of 24 throws for 155 yards. The Bucs continued to run the ball well in the second half, getting an 8-yard run out of Warrick Dunn to start a drive that ended with Cadillac Williams running nine yards for a touchdown.

The touchdown was the first for Williams since he returned two weeks ago from a 14-month layoff due to reconstructive knee surgery, and it helped give the Bucs a 13-10 lead. "I was just like, 'Wow,'" Williams said. "That took me back to all the hard work I had put into the rehab. For me to go out there and score, I was just ecstatic."

The Bucs made it 20-10 one drive later. Antonio Bryant scored the touchdown this time, hauling in a 39-yard pass from Garcia that came two plays into a drive set up by the Bucs defense. "I was able to get just enough on the ball to reach him," said Garcia, who completed just nine of 23 throws for 119 yards in the sloppy conditions. "It was a big play for us at that point."

The biggest were yet to come. The Saints crept back into the game, eventually tying it at 20-20 with 5:34 to play, but Phillips intercepted Brees to end New Orleans next drive and set the stage for Matt Bryant's game winning field goal and Phillip Buchanon intercepted Brees to end the Saints final comeback bid.

"This gets us one step closer to our goal," Williams said. "We want to come out of the South and finish strong, so I feel like we're getting better and wwe're in a position to finish strong."

Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 1 December 2008