Title thoughts still dancing in Bucs' heads
It has become one of the anticipated sights of the post-game Tampa Bay Buccaneers locker room: The great black Buddha otherwise known as defensive tackle Warren Sapp seated at his stall on a well-fortified wooden stool, espousing on the 60 minutes that just transpired and all the while spitting tobacco juice into a white towel stretched across the floor.

But on Sunday, after a Tampa Bay trouncing of the New Orleans Saints that pushed the Bucs one giant step closer to wild-card qualification, Sapp did not assume his usual position. Win any game by 27 points, but especially one that was supposed to boil down to the final snaps and instead was decided in the first five minutes, and there is no need for chew and spittle. A little woofin' and some big-time bluster were in order, however, and since Sapp can filibuster with the best of them he was only too anxious to oblige.

It was, from the outset, the sinful Saints who were smokeless. And so for a gloating Sapp, the subject turned from expectorations to expectations, this most outspoken of all Tampa Bay players insisting the Bucs still harbor the same Super Bowl aspirations with which they entered training camp five months ago. "The goal doesn't change, just because you (falter) once in a while, or because you experience some setbacks," said Sapp, water dripping from an ice bag strapped across his aching shoulder. "We still feel we can do some damage and that the talent is here to win it all. And let's face it, this is our time of year, like we showed out there today."

Indeed, the Bucs are again proving to be the NFL poinsettia, reaching full flower only when the calendar turns to December and weeks in the season dwindle to a precious few. It has become, like Sapp spitting into the towel, a tradition for this franchise: The Bucs wander around aimlessly for three months of the campaign, emerge from their hibernation in time to discover that peril is looming and then charge through December like a thief with a purloined credit card turned loose in a pricey department store.

Including the 48-21 dismantling of the Saints on Sunday afternoon, Tampa Bay is now 15-8 in December games since 1996, the season embattled coach Tony Dungy arrived. Since '98, they are 12-4 in December games, a remarkable 3-1 record each year. A victory over the Baltimore Ravens next Saturday night would further extend that December mastery but, more important, all but secure a playoff spot. "And if they make it in," acknowledged Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks, "they could be a tough team. They've got all that talent, they feel like the Super Bowl is their destiny, and they are a veteran team. I wouldn't want to play them (in the postseason), I know that. You could see today how focused they were. You back them to the wall, and they're dangerous, man."

Roughly an hour before kickoff, tight ends coach Ricky Thomas put down a long strip of white athletic tape in front of the Buccaneers' locker stalls, his message an unspoken one but nonetheless apparent: One by one, the players stepped over the tape to join him. Obviously, the inventive Thomas should not only run out and buy some Johnson & Johnson's stock, but try his play in, say, September, once in a while.

The bad habit of annually salvaging a season on the brink has become, like artificial Christmas trees, a staple of this NFL precinct. It does not, though, diminish the befuddlement the Bucs characteristically visit upon their fans, their owners, their coaches, themselves. So when it comes to puzzling teams, this edition of the Bucs is no less an enigma than most of its predecessors -- a team of individual brilliance but collective laxity. Underachievement hangs over this franchise in a palpable way, much like the specter of Bill Parcells looking over the shoulder of the classy Dungy, but that didn't seem to faze the Bucs on Sunday because the calendar says that it is December.

And even Dungy, a man hardly noted for bouts of hyperbole, has noted several times over the past couple of weeks that "this is our time of year." The assessment is hard to argue since there is a track record to back it up. Give the coach and his team credit for this: What everyone else views as the stench of a season gone bad, the Bucs regard as invigorating oxygen, sucking in the smell as if it were some high-priced cologne.

Just like the incorrigible brat who bullies folks for 11 months and then, desperate for Santa Claus to bring him that bike he's wanted all year, cleans up his act and his bedroom, the Bucs seem to be able to flip a switch and go from naughty to nice in the blink of an eye. Fact is, Sunday's game was over in an REM eye-blink, Tampa Bay scoring two touchdowns in the first five minutes and more points in the opening 15 minutes than it had totaled in 13 previous first quarters combined.

Facing an opponent that just a year ago claimed the NFC West title, a likewise talented but flawed bunch, the Bucs made short work of the Saints. They looked, well, nigh on unbeatable. Dungy, a man who has heard all the rumors of his demise and greets them with Mark Twain disdain, even permitted himself the luxury of a smile and a fist in the air as he exited the field. "It's hard to explain why we keep following the same script," noted John Lynch. "I mean, there's got to be an easier way, and this sure as heck isn't good for your nerves. But we all seem to thrive on this stuff, you know?"

It will be interesting to see how this latest Bucs rally plays out because, as Brooks emphasized, this is a team that believes its destiny includes a Vince Lombardi Trophy and might be torn apart if one isn't earned soon. Sapp and tailback Warrick Dunn both predicted in training camp that the 2001 season would be the last one in which management tolerated the same ending to the same old story in Tampa Bay.

After Sunday's intoxicating victory, Sapp backed off his preseason statements a bit, but not all the way. By next Saturday night, the victory over the Saints could have turned into a lump of coal, become the kind of aberrant turning point to which this franchise is accustomed. It could be the springboard that catapults the Buccaneers to the heights they covet, or a belly-flop off the 10-meter platform, but the players feel it is the former of those two. "I still think this has got to be our year, and I believe it can be," Sapp said, "Hey, we're the Bucs, and that means nothing comes easy for us. We put another present under the tree today. So let's see if we can go get the big present now."