The streak of good fortune began just as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were pushing back from their pregame meal in Urbana, Illinois, Sunday afternoon and heading out to a pair of waiting buses. It didn’t end until 11:30 p.m. ET, when the Bucs were finishing off a 15-0 shutout of the Chicago Bears. The final result: Tampa Bay will be home for at least the next two weekends. The Buccaneers have the NFC’s second seed for the playoffs, a first-round bye and a guaranteed home game in the Divisional Round on the weekend of January 11-12.
The happy developments were at first esoteric for Tampa Bay. The Bucs had nothing at stake in the early-afternoon Miami-New England game, the entertainment of choice at the team meal, but knew that a win by Miami would eliminate the New York Jets from playoff contention. When New England made a remarkable fourth-quarter comeback to tie the game in regulation, then win the coin toss as the Bucs were walking out the hotel door, Tampa Bay players knew that the Jets had gained incentive for their late-afternoon game against Green Bay.
And, indeed the Patriots won in overtime and the Jets went on to crush the Packers, 42-17. The latter result was a more concrete gain for the Bucs, who then knew that a win over the Bears would secure that first-round bye. And, finally, the Bucs provided the rest of the equation themselves, posting their second shutout of the season but just the sixth in team history. Combined with a 25-0 blanking of Baltimore on September 15, Tampa Bay has recorded two of its three road shutouts ever this season.
Despite a sluggish start, Sunday night’s season finale followed a predictable pattern. The injury-ravaged Bears, led by QB Henry Burris in his first career start, had difficulty moving the ball, gaining just 218 yards of total offense, 81 of those on the final drive against a mixture of first and second-stringers. Meanwhile, the Bucs’ running game, showing some life in December, carried a conservative but well-called Bucs attack to 272 yards. RB Michael Pittman finished with his most productive day yet as a Buccaneer, with a season-high 90 rushing yards plus two receptions for 28 yards. As a team, the Bucs gained 161 yards on the ground, their second-highest total of the year. In the last four games, Tampa Bay has averaged 127 rushing yards per contest.
The final piece of the puzzle was turnovers, and this time the Bucs won that battle, 4-0. The Bucs’ two top big-play producers of the season produced most of the takeaways, as CB Brian Kelly had two to give him eight on the season and LB Derrick Brooks added his fifth of 2002. CB Dwight Smith sealed the victory with his fourth interception late in the fourth quarter. Three of those four interceptions led to field goals by Martin Gramatica, who had a career-high five three-pointers in five tries for all 15 of the Bucs’ points.
That allowed backup QB Rob Johnson, playing in place of Brad Johnson, to take a conservative approach. Johnson completed 64% of his passes (16-25) for 134 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions, though he was sacked five times. Three of those sacks came in the fourth quarter. In the second half, the Bucs’ running game consistently provided short third downs, allowing Johnson to convert seven of 18 third downs on the game, many with quick passes to the sideline.
The stakes of Sunday night’s game ended up so enormous for Tampa Bay that the issue of game time temperature, usually the central focus in any cold-weather game involving the Buccaneers, was little more than an afterthought. As long as we’re on the topic, however, Tampa Bay won for the first time in a game in which the temperature was below 40 degrees at kickoff. It was 38 in Memorial Stadium when the game began.
The key drive in the game was a very lengthy field goal march that ended two minutes into the fourth quarter. Though the Bucs failed to put the ball in the end zone, they did eat eight minutes off the clock and run out a third quarter in which the Bears had the wind in their direction. The big play on the drive was a beautifully-designed screen pass to RB Michael Pittman after a fake reverse that picked up 21 yards down to Chicago’s 34. Martin Gramatica ended the drive with his third field goal of the day, a 33-yarder with the wind at his back.
On Chicago’s very next play, CB Brian Kelly secured his seventh interception of the season on a pass that went through WR Marty Booker’s hands after it was tipped by S John Lynch. The Bucs then ran another six minutes off the clock with a fourth field goal drive, this one featuring six clock-chewing runs by Pittman and FB Mike Alstott. Smith’s interception just a few plays later led to Gramatica’s fifth field goal. The Bucs’ kicker set a personal high and a team record with five field goals on the day, in five attempts.
The first half was, not altogether surprisingly, a defensive struggle, with the Bucs gaining 111 total yards to the Bears’ 89. Each team had just one sustained drive, but both ended in field goals for Tampa Bay. A 12-yard run on a third-and-12 sweep by RB Michael Pittman keyed a 48-yard, seven-minute drive in the second quarter for the visiting time, ending in Martin Gramatica’s 30-yarder. The Bears answered with their only long march of the first half, starting with a 30-yard reception by TE John Gilmore, but LB Derrick Brooks brought it to a sudden end with an interception. Brooks, who made his fifth pick of the year and further supplemented his candidacy for NFL, caught Henry Burris’ pass on the run and got it back to the 34 before he was tackled by WR Marty Booker. A 16-yard pass to WR Keyshawn Johnson set up Gramatica’s 30-yarder.
The Buccaneers also set a new team record for wins in a regular season, going 12-4 to top the 11-5 mark of 1999. In addition, Tampa Bay’s six road wins were their most ever, surpassing the five of 1979 and 1997. The Bucs might have needed a first-round bye more than any team in the league. The extra week will increase Brad Johnson’s chance of returning for the postseason. In the three games started this season by Rob Johnson and Shaun King, the Bucs have struggled on offense. The Bucs scored just nine field goals in Rob Johnson’s two starts, though they were 2-0 in those contests. Brad Johnson, meanwhile, is the NFC’s second highest ranked passer, behind part-time starter Marc Bulger of St. Louis.
The Bucs will await the winner of one of next week’s two NFC Wild Card games. Atlanta will play at Green Bay on Saturday and the New York Giants will visit San Francisco on Sunday. If both home teams win, the Bucs would face Green Bay in the Divisional Round in Raymond James Stadium.