Pound That Elf: Bucs Salvage Holiday Cheer
It was neither big nor easy. What has been this season? It says something about the Bucs' fall from championship grace that they are down to playing spoiler against the Saints, as if the Saints can't spoil on their own. It says something when the Bucs really had nothing to do with the biggest plays of the game, a dropped touchdown by Saints receiver Joe Horn, immediately followed by New Orleans quarterback Aaron Brooks dropping a ball without a Buc so much as touching him. Ah, the road to 6-7 is paved with gold.

And Jon Gruden, Bucs master and commander, might be running out of motivational tools for this bunch if Saturday night's pep talk is an indication. Pound the Rock is out. Gruden gathered the children and told them about Santa's sleigh. ``I saw the movie `Elf' with my boys,'' Gruden said after the Bucs won, 14-7. ``And Santa's sleigh runs on spirit. It doesn't run on gas and it doesn't run on just deer. It runs on spirit.''

``Everybody was cracking up,'' Ronde Barber said. ``But it doesn't always have to be Knute Rockne.''

Pull the Sleigh. Chucky's little helpers fought a little on Sunday, especially on defense and certainly enough to smile after improving to 2-0 against NFC South teams on the road in domes when Warren Sapp catches a touchdown pass. Sapp barely grabbed the winning points after losing the ball in the Superdome lights. Is that this season or what? ``It's like looking up in a spaceship,'' Sapp said.

Speaking of spaceship, here's Simeon Rice: ``Sometimes you just wake up, and you come to a point of epiphany.''

Yeah. Like he said. As the Bucs made enough piphy plays to hold onto this game, you wondered where this elfin strain was when they really needed it, back when they were still standing on the edge of the cliff instead of being down to one skinny finger clinging to it. Where, oh, where was this in Jacksonville?

Look at the plays Sunday. A blocked punt and return that led to Sapp's score. Seven sacks - three by Rice - after none against the Packers and Jaguars. Greg Spires sacked Brooks into a fumble to stop a drive inside the Bucs' 10 in the fourth quarter. Think they could have used that at a few critical points earlier this season, when they didn't have to depend on anyone losing to make the playoffs, anyone but themselves? Think they could have used a last stand like the one they made Sunday after the Saints got the ball back with two minutes left? Where was it against Indy? Against Carolina? Against the Saints in Tampa?

It looked like too little, too late. Then again, is it ever too late for Christmas spirit? ``We can't control the situation around us,'' Derrick Brooks said. ``But we can control how a championship football team finishes its season. And that's with all the heart you can.''

Yes, it was the Saints. And surely these are the 2003 Bucs, the team with the offense that mustered no true touchdown drives Sunday, the team that hurts itself with penalties, the team that tried to blow it with two missed field goals, the last one blocked, as if this year's Martin Gramatica couldn't miss it on his own. It's never over with these Bucs. But there were enough of them at the end, particularly on defense. It's a bit of a comedown. Last year, they ruled the world. Sunday, they were down to pride. But pride there was, enough to stop New Orleans' winning streak against them and to keep Deuce McAllister from his 10th consecutive 100-yard game. Deuce came in chasing history. He didn't make it.

Brooks and the defense stopped him. Brooks, who made 11 tackles, was all over this game. And he was all over the Saints' last gasp, smacking down McAllister on a fourth-down swing pass. For a fleeting moment it felt like old times. ``I looked forward to that collision,'' Brooks said.

``He got him on the ground and we're out of here,'' Sapp said.

``We brought back that juice today,'' John Lynch said.

Pound the Elf. ``Hell of a flick, man,'' Chucky said.