Post-season Almost Reality For Bucs
The Tampa Tribune, published 9 December 2002

Can the Bucs start printing playoff tickets following Sunday's 34-10 win against NFC South foe Atlanta? Not yet. But they may want to go ahead and place an order with the NFL. The Bucs took a large step toward the NFC South Division title by shooting down the Falcons, who could have dropped the Bucs to third in the division with a victory. Instead, coupled with New Orleans' win at Baltimore, the Falcons (8-4-1) dropped to third behind the front-running Bucs (10-3) and Saints (9-4).

Tampa Bay failed to clinch a playoff berth when the Giants (7-6) stayed alive by defeating the Redskins, 27-21. The Bucs can clinch a playoff berth with a win at Detroit on Sunday. As the race stands now, the Bucs aren't ready to celebrate anything. ``The next three weeks we've got to take care of anything that moves,'' defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. ``It's not where we are, but where we want to be, and that's a championship.''

The Bucs remain cautious because at least one scenario remains in which they could miss the playoffs entirely. If the Bucs were to lose their three remaining games, the Giants could win an NFC wild-card berth if they win their final three games. Both would be 10-6, but the Giants would advance because of their better conference record. Coach Jon Gruden showed how important Sunday's win was when he walked off the field with fists pumping, one of his more emotional displays of the season not aimed at an official. He tried to keep the victory in perspective afterward. ``It was a special win for our team,'' he said. ``The season is not over. It's not where you line up, it's where you wind up. The Detroit Lions will knock us off our block if we are not ready to play [next week].''

If the Bucs win at Detroit, and then close out with victories at home against Pittsburgh and against Chicago in Champaign, Ill., they will clinch the first NFC South title. However, a loss and a New Orleans win next week puts the Saints back in the driver's seat since they won both head-to-head meetings. The Falcons also are still alive for the division crown, but the Bucs hold the tiebreaker against Atlanta by winning both regular-season meetings. ``It's all about taking this thing to the next level,'' defensive end Simeon Rice said. ``At this point, we are feeling really confident. We are not going to let it overwhelm us. We understand that this is another game, another brick, another foundation that has been laid in this whole buildup.''