Buccaneers 31, 49ers 6
-- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made certain that no miraculous ending or controversial call would save the San Francisco 49ers this time. They used their always-ferocious defense and a rejuvenated offense sparked by the return of quarterback Brad Johnson to overwhelm the 49ers practically from the outset today at Raymond James Stadium, coasting into the NFC championship game with a 31-6 victory in front of 65,599.
Tampa Bay got two touchdown passes by Johnson and two touchdown runs by fullback Mike Alstott in sprinting to a 28-6 first-half lead. The Buccaneers advanced to Sunday's game in Philadelphia and felt good because Johnson made their offense once again look like a dangerous complement to the NFL's top-ranked defense.
"That was as good a performance in the first 25 or 30 minutes, I think, as we've had all season," Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said.
Gruden's team had a bye week to rest and heal while the 49ers needed an official's failure to call pass interference on a botched field goal attempt last weekend to survive the New York Giants in a first-round game. San Francisco offered little resistance this afternoon. A day after missing a walk-through because he was sick, quarterback Jeff Garcia threw three interceptions, was sacked four times and fumbled three times. Wide receiver Terrell Owens was not a factor, finishing with four catches for 35 yards. The 49ers committed five turnovers.
"We had their man bracketed," Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "T.O. wasn't open. He was looking for places to go, and there wasn't anywhere to go."
The 49ers lost cornerback Ahmed Plummer to a dislocated shoulder in the first quarter, and Johnson rebounded from an early interception to direct the Buccaneers to four touchdowns in five possessions. They eclipsed their franchise record for points in a postseason game -- 24 -- by halftime, that after totaling only 22 points in their final two regular season games with Johnson sidelined by a bruised lower back.
"We tried to come out early and throw it five or six times and get him reacclimated to the speed of a game," Gruden said. "He played a great game."
His back was fine, but Johnson did leave the game momentarily to receive about a half-dozen stitches to close a gash over his right eye in the third quarter.
"I missed being in the huddle," said Johnson, who completed 15 of 31 passes for 196 yards. "I missed practice. I love practice. For me, getting back in there was exciting. . . . I felt sharp the last two weeks in practice."
The Buccaneers are one step short of the Super Bowl in the season after they surrendered $8 million and four high draft picks to the Oakland Raiders to hire Gruden to replace ousted coach Tony Dungy. But Gruden wasn't gloating about that today.
"I know why ownership brought me here, and I know why every owner brings every coach in -- to advance and win championships," Gruden said. "Again, I'm sorry how I got here. I don't know what more I can say. Every coach and every team is there to win championships. I'm sensitive to it. I'm succeeding a guy who did a tremendous job here."
The future of 49ers Coach Steve Mariucci, meantime, is uncertain again after his club's dismal showing. After the win over the Giants, he and the 49ers seemed likely to work out a contract extension. But he has uneasy relationships with General Manager Terry Donahue and team consultant Bill Walsh, and an executive from one NFL club said today that Mariucci could end up being a candidate for the Jacksonville Jaguars' coaching vacancy if he and the 49ers part ways. Talks between Mariucci and 49ers owner John York are scheduled to begin Tuesday.
Johnson threw an interception to end the Bucs' first drive. But Tampa Bay got the ball back and rolled 74 yards for a touchdown to take a lead that it would not relinquish. On third and one from the San Francisco 2-yard line, the Bucs put Sapp into the offensive lineup as an extra blocker, and Alstott bulled into the end zone.
The 49ers responded with a 24-yard field goal by rookie place kicker Jeff Chandler, missing a tying touchdown when Garcia threw too high for an open Owens on third and goal from the 6. Garcia and Owens had an animated conversation on the sideline, but it didn't help.
The Buccaneers sliced through the 49ers' defense again to make it 14-3. Johnson threw a touch pass to wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson for a 28-yard gain to the San Francisco 23, then dropped a pass into the hands of wideout Joe Jurevicius for the touchdown on third and seven from the 20.
Chandler connected from 40 yards to narrow the deficit to 14-6, but Tampa Bay made it three touchdowns in three possessions to stay in command. San Francisco safety Tony Parrish grabbed Jurevicius on a deep pass for a 36-yard pass-interference penalty. That put the Bucs in business at the San Francisco 16. Alstott ran for four yards, then served as a decoy on a play-action fake by Brad Johnson on second down. Johnson rolled left and delivered a touchdown pass to open tight end Rickey Dudley.
And Tampa Bay wasn't done. The Bucs recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff but couldn't cash in. They did manage to pin the 49ers at their 3 on veteran Tom Tupa's punt, though, and linebacker Derrick Brooks's interception on a deflected pass set them up at the San Francisco 26. A 22-yard run by tailback Michael Pittman on a sweep led to Alstott's two-yard touchdown burst, and the competitive portion of the day was over.
"They beat us in every aspect of the game," 49ers cornerback Mike Rumph said. "They came out with a do-or-die attitude and made the plays. We didn't."
The 49ers' miseries continued on the first play of the second half, when Owens tipped a pass into the hands of cornerback Dwight Smith for an interception. Johnson suffered the cut over his eye when he was poked by 49ers middle linebacker Derek Smith, his former Washington Redskins teammate, at the end of a rare run. With blood streaming down his face, he was taken off the field on a cart, pumping his fist toward the crowd as he exited. Backup quarterback Rob Johnson couldn't get the Bucs into the end zone, and Martin Gramatica's 19-yard field goal made the lead 31-6.
Brad Johnson returned to the lineup the next time the Bucs had the ball, but all that remained in question was the final score.