The kick was long enough and high enough, but the 2000 Pro Bowler hit it dead straight. It caromed squarely off the right upright and allowed the Chicago Bears to escape with a 27-24 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before 65,612 stunned fans at Raymond James Stadium. The win, combined with the Green Bay Packers 23-20 loss at Lambeau Field to the Atlanta Falcons, left the Monsters of the Midway alone atop the NFC Central division with a 7-2 log. The loss dropped the Bucs to 4-5 and three games behind the Bears, and in a precarious position when it comes to playoff talk.
The game was as exciting as any this season with the tide of battle changing with almost every play. In fact, there were two turnovers, one by each team, in the first three plays of the game. On the Bears first offensive play from scrimmage, quarterback Jim Miller, who was 14-of-25 for 228 yards and three touchdowns that offset one interception, had a slant pass ricochet off the hands of receiver David Terrell into the hands of cornerback Ronde Barber.
This put the Bucs offense in business at the Bears 27-yard line but the Bucs returned that present unwrapped two plays later when running back Warrick Dunn, who finished with 12 yards on eight carries, but had a dozen catches for 138 yards, fumbled on the Bucs' second offensive play when he was hit by defensive back R.W. McQuarters. The ball was covered by safety Tony Parrish at the Bears 25-yard line and the Bucs missed out on a golden opportunity. This would be a theme that would permeate through the Tampa Bay offense for the entire game.
Although the Bucs running game struggled mightily, producing only 19 yards on 15 carries for a paltry 1.3 yards per carry average, the passing game was hitting on all cylinders. Quarterback Brad Johnson, was 40-of-56 for 399 yards with two interceptions and had a record setting performance. His 56 attempts ties the club record set by Doug Williams in 1980 against the Cleveland Browns at Tampa Stadium. His 40 completions shattered the old franchise mark of 33 set by Vinny Testaverde in 1989 at the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome. A stellar individual performance, but it went all for naught as far as the final score was concerned.
Still, the Bucs drew first blood at 2:23 of the first quarter when Gramatica, who accounted for 11 points, hit a 25-yard field goal from the center of the field. The Bucs went 81 yards in 16 plays consuming 8:21 of clock time. Tampa Bay converted a third-and-5 from their own 31 when Johnson hit Dunn on a four-yard completion and then Johnson called his own number with a two-yard sneak over the right right side on a fourth-and-1 at the Bears 32 to keep the chains moving.
The first quarter was vintage Bucs football from a defensive standpoint. They held Chicago to one first down and 10 net yards as opposed to the Bucs' seven first downs and 104 net yards. Johnson was 9-of-11 for 89 yards in the first 15 minutes of play.
The Bucs struck again with 13:49 left before half time when Gramatica converted his second field goal from 38 yards out. The drive took five plays and maneuvered over land for 22 yards and took 1:11 of clock time that extended their lead to 6-0. The big play of the series was the initial one when Johnson hit running back Mike Alstott, who carried the ball four times for two yards and a TD to go along with four catches for 36 yards, for 15 yards.
The Bears scored a touchdown at 8:21 of the second quarter when Miller found wide receiver Marty Booker, who had seven grabs for 165 yards and three TDs, after a perfectly executed play action fake for a 28-yard scoring strike. Booker earned the TD when he kept the pigskin in his possession after a vicious hit by strong safety John Lynch just before the goal line. A successful PAT by Paul Edinger, who had two field goals, gave Chicago their first lead at 7-6 after the five-play drive that ate up 2:40 of clock time while going 67 yards.
The Bucs came back and took the lead with just 23 seconds left in the second quarter. The Bucs marched 84 yards in 10 plays and took 2:18 off the game clock to go ahead 9-7 going into half time. The big play in the drive occurred when, on a third-and-3 from the Tampa Bay 15-yard line, Johnson hit wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who caught 12 balls for 89 yards, for three yards and a first down. When the drive stalled, Gramatica booted his second field goal this time from 26 yards away.
The Bears came out the second half with renewed vigor and a couple of quick-strike touchdowns. After forcing a punt, Chicago took 2:04 to move 55 yards in four plays to take the lead for good. Booker covered the final 44 yards on a beautifully thrown ball up the left sideline past Barber to give the Bears a 14-9 lead with 11:03 to go in the third quarter. This would begin a 17-point run for the guys from the Windy City and the Bucs seemed unable to stop the onslaught.
The next touchdown was a home run throw down the middle. Miller hooked up with Booker for the third time with this one traveling 66 yards. The drive took only one play and 11 seconds to hit the promised land with Edinger good again with the PAT and the Bears now leading 21-9.
The Bears extended their lead to 24-9 at the 4:01 mark with an Edinger 26-yard field goal and the Bucs were reeling. The 10-play drive took 4:57 to complete the journey of 33 yards after linebacker Brian Urlacher forced an Alstott fumble that was recovered by defensive end Philip Daniels. A Miller-to-Booker 12-yard pass helped move the chains on a third-and-3 from the Bucs 34-yard line, and a very questionable roughing the passer call on Bucs defensive end Steve White, who had two sacks, gave Chicago a fresh set of downs.
The Bucs offense finally found the end zone to cut the lead to 24-16. Alstott rammed the leather into the end zone from one yard out to cap a 10-play drive that took 3:28 to go 78 yards. Gramatica's PAT was good. The drive was kept alive when cornerback Walt Harris was flagged for interference while covering Reidel Anthony in the end zone.
The Bucs forced the Bears to punt on their next series but Tampa Bay had a three-and-out working. In one of the most controversial calls of the game, Mark Royals faked a punt and passed the ball to running back Aaron Stecker, but came up a yard short. This allowed the Bears a short field and they capitalized on it with a 40-yard Edinger field goal to up the lead to 27-16 at 6:59 of the fourth quarter. The four-play drive consumed 2:27 of clock time
But the Bucs weren't finished. On their next possession, Tampa Bay took only 4:30 to go 77 yards in 12 plays with Johnson sneaking into the end zone from a yard away. This cut the Bears lead to 27-24 with a successful two-point conversion pass from Johnson to Alstott with 2:29 left.
It was now up to the Bucs defense to get the ball back and that they did. After forcing the Bears to go three-and-out the Buccaneers took over at their own 31-yard line. On the first play of the drive, Johnson was intercepted by Parrish ending the Bucs hopes for victory. Or did it?
After the Bears kept possession, running back Anthony Thomas, who had 58 yards in 23 carries and a catch for 10 yards, fell on a Jim Miller fumble that allowed the Bears to keep possession. After two kneel downs by Miller the Bears disdained the field goal and turned it over on downs to the Bucs at their own 32-yard line and that decision almost came back to haunt head coach Dick Jauron.
Two passes to Dunn, one for 14 yards and the second for eight yards, still only moved the ball to the Bears 46-yard line with six ticks left on the clock. The Bucs would need a miracle to get Gramatica in range for a game tying field goal and it almost happened. McQuarters was flagged for a 15-yard late hit personal foul on Dunn's last catch that moved the ball to the Chicago 31-yard line. A makeable 48 yard boot for Gramatica was just a foot too far to the right and hit the upright.
The Bucs had their chances but didn¹t capitalize. Four turnovers, three blown coverages, and a questionable coaching decision have left the Bucs with their backs to the wall. With a 4-5 record and a tough game next week at (8-1) St. Louis, things aren't looking good for the Bucs' playoff hopes.
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