Bucs Defense Won't Allow A Comeback
Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune, published 13 January 2003

Maybe, somewhere, some soul looked upon the 49ers' plight Sunday and saw hope, even though they trailed the Bucs by 22 points at halftime. After all, hadn't the 49ers staged one of the NFL's greatest playoff comebacks last week against the Giants? They were farther behind that day than they were on this one. Perhaps it could happen again. That's what you're supposed to think, right?

But most people knew better. Jon Gruden certainly did. Even as the Bucs' head coach issued all the proper warnings to his team at the half about San Francisco's penchant for late-game comebacks, here's a secret: He wasn't buying what he was selling. ``In the back of my mind, I'm thinking, `There's no way,' '' Gruden said. ``It's a great defensive team. I'm very arrogant at times, a cocky guy - at least I've been portrayed to be. I just have a lot of confidence in our defense.''

Well, it seems like we say pretty much the same thing about this group every week, but we should say it again and continue to say it. The Bucs' 31-6 victory Sunday became official shortly after 4 p.m., but it was really safe to go to the mall by halftime. ``There was no miracle in the making,'' cornerback Ronde Barber said.

The Niners weren't coming back to win. Not this time. This one was over. ``They thrive on coming back. We thrive on burying people,'' tackle Warren Sapp said. ``You've been in our arena. We've already dug the hole, now all we have to do is drag you to it and put the dirt on you. It's pretty simple after we've dug that hole.''

It was just a question of when you felt like administering the last rites. A good place to start would have been right after the halftime break. San Francisco's first play, a pass from quarterback Jeff Garcia, was intercepted by Dwight Smith. So much for the comeback. ``It just got to a point where it was difficult,'' Garcia said afterward.

That's one way to put it. Another might be to pick your favorite statistic. It could be the five turnovers the Bucs inflicted - three interceptions and two fumbles. Or it could be the paltry 3.7 yards per pass play they allowed Garcia, or the insignificant day for receiver Terrell Owens (four catches, 35 yards). You like your defense to stop the run? The 49ers only tried to run 13 times and got 62 whole yards. They had 228 overall.

You want turning points? The Niners had first-and-goal at the Bucs' 4 in the first quarter, but got only a field goal. They reached the Bucs' 22 midway through the second, but Garcia threw three incomplete passes and they had to accept another field goal. ``Three more snaps for us, three less snaps for them,'' Sapp said.

We could go on and on, but you get the point. This was domination by a superior unit, albeit one with something left to prove. They'll have that chance next Sunday at Philadelphia, with a Super Bowl berth to the winner. Maybe that's why the locker room atmosphere was low-key. They knew how well they had played, but they expected to do that. They remember how close they came in 1999, how they were less than five minutes away from the Super Bowl before Kurt Warner and Ricky Proehl hooked up.

Everyone took stock of the Bucs' ravenous young defense that year and figured they'd be back in 2000 to finish the job. But it's not that easy, as ill-timed misadventures the past couple of seasons have proved. Sunday's playoff victory was the first since 1999. ``We know it's going to be cold [in Philadelphia],'' safety John Lynch said. ``You saw the steam coming out of their mouths [Saturday] night when you watched them play. [Veterans Stadium] sounded just like you remember it sounded. They're going to be ready.''

You get the sense this defense also will be ready. Mobile quarterbacks like Philly's Donovan McNabb used to torture them, but they've stared down Michael Vick twice and they kept Garcia from causing any damage. This defense has no questions right now. They have been compared to the 1985 Bears, and some of the great Steelers' defenses of the 1970s. The comparisons are legitimate, but those teams won Super Bowls. This team still has something to prove. ``The window of opportunity is closing and we've got to take advantage of this opportunity,'' Sapp said.

The only thing closing Sunday were Garcia's escape routes. Or maybe the door, as the souls who thought the Niners had a chance to rally finally came to their senses and left the building. They had to hurry. The malls were getting crowded.