Now the Bucs can wait and wonder. Who will be next? Who knows? Who cares? They can wait. That's what the Bucs wanted from Sunday's game. An opportunity to wait around a week for the playoffs to start. It's what some of them - quarterback Brad Johnson, in particular - needed. Now they have it. They have it thanks to a 15-0 victory against the Chicago Bears, one that left them seeded second in the NFC playoffs behind Philadelphia and at home for their first playoff game two weeks from now. ``Getting that week off, getting the bye, that's huge,'' said defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who led the defense to its second shutout of the season and sixth in franchise history with seven tackles. ``This gives us a chance to get our quarterback back on the field; it gives me a chance to heal up [from a left knee sprain]. We've been down this road before with the bye and it's a nice road.''
The last time the Bucs earned a first-round playoff bye was 1999, when they advanced to the NFC Championship Game against St. Louis. And they went that far riding the arm of a third-team quarterback, Shaun King. The Bucs rode the arm of their former third-team quarterback to a franchise-best 12th victory on Sunday, but it was a victory that left you hoping that a week is all Brad Johnson needs to get his aching back healthy. While he made several big plays and appeared to improve as the game progressed, Rob Johnson could not get the Bucs into the end zone. But that's nothing new, really.
Prior to Sunday, all but one of Rob Johnson's four scoring drives this season resulted in field goals. On Sunday, he maintained that pace as Martin Gramatica kicked a franchise record five field goals - of 26, 30, 32, 33 and 33 yards - to account for the difference. ``We had some good times and some bad times,'' Coach Jon Gruden said of the offensive effort. ``They gave us an inordinary amount of pressure and I thought Rob was in a tough situation. We've got to do a better job of picking up some of the blitzes, but I thought he managed the game well. We still have to get rid of some of the sacks but I thought his decision making was better.''
Considering the weather conditions no one could really complain about the way the offense played. The game-time temperature at the University of Illinois' aged Memorial Stadium was 38-degrees and until Sunday the Bucs were 0-21 in contests in which the field thermometer at game time read 39 degrees or colder. ``We finally got that Abominable Snowman off our backs,'' Sapp said.
They did got it off for now. It's almost certain to return, though. After all, as Sapp pointed out, the one thing the Bucs do know about their playoff situation is that they'll likely have to win in Philadelphia to get to the Super Bowl. ``All this means really is that people will now say we're 1-21 when it's 39 or colder or whatever,'' he said. ``It won't mean anything until we're dominant in this kind of weather.''
The Bucs have been anything but dominant on the road in the playoffs, having gone 0-6 there. That's why getting the bye and regaining the second seed in the NFC was so important to them. ``Our first goal was to win a division title, and we did that,'' said Joel Glazer, son of Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer. ``Our second goals was to get that bye and now we've done that. Now we take it one game at a time and see what happens. We're very happy with the position we're in.''
And well they should be. For not only did the Bucs prove Sunday that they can win in near-freezing temperatures, they also proved that they can run the ball effectively when they really have to. For the third time in four games, the Bucs' running game ground out more than 100 yards rushing, gaining 161, including a season-best 90 yards from the oft-maligned Michael Pittman. As usual, though, it was the Bucs' defense that stood out most. That unit capped off its league-leading effort by setting up two of the Bucs' scores with interceptions and holding the Bears to 218 total yards. ``We couldn't get anything going on offense,'' Bears coach Dick Jauron said. ``We had something right at the end of the first half and right before the end of the ballgame but we couldn't take advantage of it.''
You can thank the Bucs' secondary for that. Cornerback Brian Kelly had two of the Bucs four picks and Dwight Smith had another. Dexter Jackson nearly had one but he let the ball bounce out of his hands. The biggest pick of the game, though, didn't come from a defensive back. It came from linebacker Derrick Brooks, who stopped a Bears drive late in the second quarter that had already reached the Bucs 25-yard line. Brooks return on that play was for 22 yards and it set up the second of Gramatica's field goals, giving the Bucs a 6-0 score at the end of the first half. Though they moved the ball well at times, the Bucs didn't add to that score until the fourth quarter. Kelly's first pick set up one of those scores.