Buccaneers 21, Packers 7
All week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had simmered over what defensive tackle Warren Sapp described as all those "yeah, but" comments they've been hearing lately. As in "yeah, so you're 8-2, but who have you really beaten?"
The Bucs offered up a resounding rebuttal of their own today, with a defensively dominating 21-7 victory over the Green Bay Packers that answered most questions rather emphatically. The Bucs are 9-2, the best record in the NFL, and if they can maintain that status over the next five weeks, they'll also own the all-important home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
Two short second-half touchdown passes from vision challenged Brad Johnson, one to wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, the other to tight end Ken Dilger, allowed the Bucs to open a 14-point lead with 7 minutes 30 seconds left. Both scores were set up by two of Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre's four interceptions. In his first eight games, Favre had only four; in his last two, both losses, he's had seven, and the Packers are now 8-3 after a two-game losing streak.
Green Bay Coach Mike Sherman was peeved enough right after the game to confront Sapp on the field and accuse him of taking what he considered a cheap shot on Packers tackle Chad Clifton on an interception return to set up the Bucs' first touchdown in the third quarter. Clifton suffered a severely sprained hip, lost feeling in his legs and was taken to a local hospital after leaving the field in a stretcher.
"I told [Sapp] that I didn't appreciate the lick he put on Clifton," Sherman said. "What I saw looked kind of cheap. The joviality that existed afterward when a guy is laying on the ground with numbess in his legs and fingers. I just think that wasn't appropriate for any NFL player. I have a lot of respect for the game, and I didn't think that was the place for that . . . Maybe I over-reacted."
Sapp denied all.
"Nine referees on the field didn't find anything wrong," Sapp said, referring to no penalty being called (by seven officials, actually). "I'm sure [the NFL] will look at it [for a possible fine]. The guy was running down the field, and I put a lick on him. Those guys [the Packers] know I don't play like that. They know I'm a between-the-whistle kind of guy. I expected [Sherman] to be that way after he got his butt whipped. One of us was scared, and the other was glad [when they were separated by onlookers on the field]. Who do you think was scared?"
The Bucs clearly played with no fear today, even if Johnson, the former Redskin, had his right eye poked on the game's second play. He stayed in on third down, and said when he tried to toss a pitchout to running back Michael Pittman, he saw two Pittmans.
Backup Rob Johnson replaced him, and it took about 30 minutes for Brad's blurred vision to subside. He reentered the game with 10 minutes left in the first half and played mostly flawlessly thereafter with two touchdown passes, giving him nine in his last three games.
The Bucs took the lead for the first time on a four-yard touchdown pass to Jurevicius that initially was ruled incomplete because it appeared the receiver was unable to keep both feet in bounds. But Bucs Coach Jon Gruden challenged the play, and referee Johnny Grier overruled the call and awarded the Bucs a touchdown, along with a rather unorthodox explanation.
"The right foot is down," Grier told the crowd of Jurevicius's fancy footwork. "He dotted the 'i' with the left foot. The result is we have a touchdown."
What dotted the eye was a clump of dirt kicked up inbounds by Jurevicius's left foot, all the evidence Grier needed to provide a 12-7 Tampa Bay lead. Johnson then completed a play-action pass to Keyshawn Johnson for a two-point conversion and a 14-7 margin with five minutes left in the third period, and the Bucs' No. 1-rated defense took over from there.
All four of Tampa Bay's interceptions came in the final 22 minutes, including Dexter Jackson's theft of a pass intended for Donald Driver with the Packers on their 40. Jackson returned it 58 yards to the Packers 5, and three plays later Brad Johnson caught Green Bay blitzing and found Dilger open for a touchdown reception and a breathe-easy 21-7 lead.
Favre refused to point any fingers at his offensive teammates on any of the interceptions. It appeared that wide receiver Terry Glenn gave up on one pass route, and caused another by turning his route up the field while Favre was throwing to an underneath target.
"In conditions like this, you all have to be on the same page," he said. "I tip my hat to Tampa, they're a great team. . . . It's over, and you have to learn from it."
What the Bucs learned today was that no matter what anyone has been saying about their seemingly soft schedule (only two victories over winning teams), they're still in total control of their playoff fortunes. Home-field advantage would be huge for a franchise that is 0-6 in past road playoff games.
"Some people don't think we have what it takes," said Gruden. "That's the beautiful thing about America. Everyone has an opinion. We've still got a long way to go, but we're proud to be 9-2, and now we have a responsibility to finish it."