The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, left lifeless at 4-5 after being stunned by the Chicago Bears at Raymond James Stadium in their last outing, came off the canvas on two occasions to defeat the St. Louis Rams 24-17 before 66,198 stunned fans at the Dome at America¹s Center and a nationally televised audience on Monday Night Football. The loss dropped the Rams into a tie with the 8-2 San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West, and the win evened the Bucs record at 5-5 leaving them three games back of the NFC Central leading Bears and just one win away from staying in playoff contention.
The way that the Bucs conquered the Rams was by giving St. Louis a dose of Tampa Bay's old-fashioned stifling defense with three sacks, three fumbles and two interceptions, and thanks to those turnovers, just enough offense to outscore the supposed "Greatest Show On Earth".
In this grudge match that was every bit as entertaining as the first two meetings - an 11-6 Bucs loss at St. Louis in the 1999 NFC Championship Game and a 38-35 thriller on Monday Night Football in victorious Tampa last year - each side spent little time trying to figure out the style of their opponent and went right for the quick knockout.
Neither team was able to put together consecutive scoring drives. The Rams opened the scoring with a field goal and then the Bucs countered with a touchdown. It went back and forth all game long with each side looking for that one big punch that would put their opponent away.
The Bucs were able to find a way to finally win a game in the fourth quarter thanks to a go-ahead 21-yard touchdown run by Warrick Dunn and two drive-killing interceptions in the final minutes by cornerback Donnie Abraham and strong safety John Lynch to seal Tampa Bay's fifth win of the season.
Dunn, who had 60 yards on 14 carries with a touchdown to go along with his five receptions for 46 yards, actually stepped out of bounds on his 21-yard touchdown at the Rams 5, but St. Louis head coach Mike Martz used both of his challenges early in the game and the play couldn't be reviewed. Dunn's run off the right side capped a nine-play, 90-yard drive that took 5:28 to conclude. That play broke a 17-17 tie with 11:13 left in the game and, after kicker Martin Gramatica converted his third point after touchdown of the evening, the Bucs to a 24-17 lead that they weren't going to relinquish, even though the Rams would get a few more possessions.
The Rams tried to fight back. St. Louis would have four more cracks at the Bucs defense and they held the mighty Rams offense scoreless in the final quarter. On the first drive, the Bucs forced a Rams punt after a three-and-out. On the Rams' second fourth quarter series, running back Rabih Abdullah blocked punter John Baker's attempt deep inside St. Louis territory, but after converting a key fourth-and-inches inside the red zone, Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson had his pass intended for tight end Dave Moore picked off by defensive tackle Brian Young, who dropped into zone coverage.
The two final St. Louis possessions ended with the Abraham and Lynch interceptions, which put the Rams down for the count and kept Tampa Bay's postseason hopes alive for at least one more week.
The scoring started when the Rams took the opening kickoff and proceeded to march right down the field. Mixing in two slashing rushes by running back Marshall Faulk, who finished the night with 55 yards on 12 carries to go along with two receptions for 11 yards, and three straight completions by quarterback Kurt Warner, who was 19-for-39 for 291 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, moved the Rams from their own 20-yard line to a first down on the Bucs 26-yard line.
The drive stalled after three straight incomplete passes so kicker Jeff Wilkins booted home a 44-yard field goal to put the Rams up 3-0 at 10:57 of the opening period. The drive took 10 plays and covered 54 yards while taking 4:03 off the clock.
The Bucs let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers on their first possession. After a three-and-out on their initial offensive series, punter Mark Royals booted the football 42 yards to returner Az Hakim at the Rams 33-yard line. Linebacker Jeff Gooch separated the St. Louis wide receiver from the football and cornerback Dwight Smith recovered the pigskin at the Rams 25-yard line giving the Pewter Pirates a short field situation. But after converting a third-and-six from the Rams 21 yard line when Johnson, who was 21-of-34 for 185 yards and one interception, hit tight end Moore for eight yards the drive stalled. The usually reliable Gramatica then pulled a 25-yard field goal attempt from the left hash to keep the Bucs scoreless in the first quarter.
It only took the Bucs defense four plays to get the football back for the offense. After the Rams had rattled off two quick first downs, Warner handed off to wide receiver Isaac Bruce, who finished with three catches for 73 yards, on a reverse. After a 2-yard gain, linebacker Shelton Quarles punched the football from Bruce's grasp and was recovered by defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who also contributed two sacks and a forced fumble, at the Bucs 46-yard line.
This time the Bucs would dent the scoreboard at 13:19 of the second quarter. Mike Alstott, who had 34 yards on 11 carries plus two touchdowns, scored his first TD when he was virtually untouched on a counter. Bucs linemen Cosey Coleman and Jerry Wunsch did an excellent job of collapsing the right side of the Rams defensive line, and pulling guard Randall McDaniel and fullback Jameel Cook had great kickout blocks.
Gramatica's point after touchdown gave the Bucs a 7-3 lead. That culminated a 10-play, 54-yard drive that took 5:31.
The Rams and Bucs decided to trade field goals right up to the close of the first half. Wilkins had two, the first one a 42-yarder at 5:06 of the second quarter and the second from 24 yards as time ran out in the first half. These two three pointers were sandwiched around a Gramatica 36-yard field goal with 2:10 left in the second quarter gave the Bucs a 10-9 lead at halftime.
Both the Bucs and the Rams scored on their only possessions of the third quarter. After taking the second half kickoff, the Bucs methodically moved the football 68 yards in 11 plays and took the first 6:24 of the period to extend their lead to 17-9 after Gramatica's conversion. Alstott ran his second touchdown in from eight yards away and it was looking good for the Bucs.
But the Rams answered the Bucs with a time consuming drive of 6:55 for their only touchdown of the game. On a fourth-and-goal from inside the Tampa Bay 1-yard line, Warner faked a handoff to Faulk and lobbed the football to wide open tight end Brandon Manumaleuna. The Rams went 90 yards in nine plays setting the stage for Dunn's run to seal the victory for the Bucs.
Tampa Bay, for the time being, has righted the ship, but not without fighting through some questionable calls by the officials. The most glaring was in the second quarter when defensive end Steve White sacked Warner causing a fumble that was covered by Quarles putting the Bucs in business at the Rams 19 yard line, but not if the Rams could help it.
St. Louis challenged the ruling on that field and said that Warner's arm was coming forward. They eventually won that round when referee Ron Blum, a golf pro by day, overturned the call made on the field and incorrectly said that Warner's arm was going forward. That brought an impromptu response from Monday Night Football announcer Dan Fouts who thought it was a fumble and said, "If that's a pass then I'm Arnold Palmer" and continued to show the flaws in Blum's decision with numerous replays.
The primary reason that the Bucs were able to defeat St. Louis in a very hostile environment was that the Buccaneers out-touchdowned the Rams. Each team had four scoring plays with the Bucs scoring three touchdown plus a field goal and the Rams only putting up a single touchdown with a two-point conversion to go with three field goals. Tampa Bay's defense, led by the inspired play of Sapp, returned to its old self in this Monday night classic. It will have to continue to play ol' fashioned Bucball and start at winning streak to have any shot at the playoffs. The Bucs have two winnable games up next with a trip to Cincinnati and a home game against winless Detroit.
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