The 'Juice' Is Flowing Again
The game had been over for a half hour or so but you could still see the extra bounce in his step and hear the excitement in his voice, proof of the stuff Jon Gruden likes to call "the juice." He is overflowing now with it and it is contagious. If you don't think so, just wait a few weeks and see.

"It's so exciting when you get in the playoffs, whether you win the division or wild card. There's only one bowl game. There's no Fiesta Bowl, no BCS, no voters allowed. You either get in or you don't. I just love the playoffs," Gruden said. "You just work your whole offseason - 3 o'clock in the morning or 8 o'clock at night, whatever - to be in one of those games."

The Bucs are in "one of those games" again. They are in the playoffs. That much became official late Sunday afternoon when - we interrupt the end zone-to-end zone coverage of Micheal Spurlock, The Early Years, for this important message - the Bucs clinched the NFC South championship after beating Atlanta 37-3. Oh, that!

By now you have no doubt seen a few hundred replays of the madness that engulfed Ray-Jay midway through the first quarter. On only the Bucs' 1,865th try since joining the National Football League, Spurlock took a kickoff back for a touchdown. But once grown men stopped weeping and the echo from the heavenly choir from on high faded, it was time to think of something even cooler.

This was Gruden's third division title in six seasons here. That's as many titles as the Bucs' six other head coaches combined and it took the other guys 26 seasons to get there. Did we say Jonny G. is feeling it?

It is customary to talk about the "bond" winning teams possess, as if closeness is a magic elixir guaranteed to lift a collective 53 men to a championship. In this case though, that bond is real. And it matters. "It's the factor, the deciding factor. Every championship team I've been on has felt like family," receiver Michael Clayton said. "When you have that chemistry, camaraderie, and everybody is fighting for each other, it makes the team that much stronger."

Maybe it's because this isn't a team of superstars like the Patriots, Colts or Cowboys. Or maybe it's because the 4-12 disaster from last year is still too close to forget. It didn't look much better heading into this season, or so a lot of us assumed. We couldn't have known that no-names like Greg White, Jovan Haye, Earnest Graham, Donald Penn and, yes, Micheal Spurlock would play as they have.

But Gruden did, as he deservedly reminded everyone. "I said earlier, and no one believed me, that the train was back on the track," he said.

Ronde Barber likes to say it's important to be playing your best football in November and December. The Bucs have won five of their past six and are getting healthy. Garcia played for the first time after missing two full games. Michael Pittman returned.

"That would be the definition of it, if I had to define it. You want a track record like that going in to the playoffs. You want to be the hot team. You don't want to sneak in the back door like the Giants did last year," Barber said. "I think we are the team, if we can continue to play like this, we can do some damage. We're the team nobody wants to talk about or the team nobody wants to see."

You can poke at their schedule, which includes just one victory against a team with a winning record. You can say the NFC South was football's weakest division. You need only look at Atlanta to see how quickly it can all go away. But none of that matters this morning. "Guys that win are the guys who survive," Gruden said. "It's hard to win in this league, man. The other teams are good, too."

We'll find out soon enough where the Bucs really stand in that lineup of good teams, but one thing we already know - they survived. They belong there. They earned it. They feel the juice that comes from being in "one of those games" again. "When you get in a tournament, Villanovas do happen," Gruden said with a grin.

Bucs do, too.

Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune 17 December 2007