EM-BEAR-ASSING

December 16 - The inept Bucs offense nets only 3 points and commits 4 turnovers, while the defense surrenders big plays in the passing game and 200 yards on the ground. Chicago clinches a playoff berth while the Bucs' playoff hopes take a huge hit.

CHICAGO - The temperature at kickoff was 44 degrees. It had been raining on and off for 48 hours. The wind was a robust 10 miles per hour coming off of Lake Michigan.

All the environmental conditions dictated that a pivotal NFC Central Division game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chicago Bears from historic Soldier Field would be a low scoring slugfest with the last team with the football coming out on top.

The Buccaneers offense obliged by only putting up three points in 60 minutes of action, but someone forgot to tell the Chicago offense about how the bad weather would effect their scoring output.

The Bears hung up big points for the second time this season on the Pewter Pirates defense in route to a 27-3 stomping of Tampa Bay before 66,944 faithful at soggy Soldier Field. The win, coupled with the Green Bay Packers 26-20 loss at Tennessee against the Titans, moves the Bears back into sole possession of first place with a 10-3 record.

The Buccaneers had their three-game winning streak halted and slipped to 7-6 for the 2001 campaign, plus their play aspirations took a big hit as well.

The team in the blue jerseys resembled the old Monsters of the Midway by dominating all three phases of the football game. From an offensive standpoint, Chicago ran 72 plays to 58 for Tampa Bay. The Bears controlled the clock for 36:01 by rushed for an astounding 207 yards thanks to a 173-yard effort by rookie Anthony Thomas.

The Bucs ran for a measly 61 led by Warrick Dunn's 27 yards on 10 carries. Tampa Bay only had the football for only 23:59.

On the defensive side of the ball, Chicago forced four turnovers, two huge fumbles and two interceptions, as opposed to the one pick registered by Tampa Bay. In the area of special teams, the Buccaneers committed a crucial penalty on a Bears field goal attempt that gave Chicago a first down and they scored their last touchdown on the very next play. The Bears just administered a plain, old fashioned, behind the woodshed whipping on the Pewter Pirates.

After an exchange of punts in the first half, the Bears got on the scoreboard on their second possession. Starting from their own 20-yard line after punter Mark Royals 43 yard effort went into the end zone. It took Chicago nine plays to march 68 yards for a 30-yard Paul Edinger field goal at 5:43 of the opening quarter to open up a 3-0 lead.

The drive took 3:49 seconds and featured a 26-yard pass from quarterback Jim Miller, who was an efficient 14-of-29 for 190 yards with two touchdowns and only one interception, to wide receiver Dez White, who had three catches for 32 yards. A terrible roughing the passer call against a blitzing cornerback Ronde Barber, who led the Bucs with nine tackles, moved the ball to the Bucs 11-yard line.

On a third-and-4 from the Tampa Bay five-yard line the Bucs made a defensive stand. Defensive end Simeon Rice corralled Miller for his first of two sacks with this one for a loss of seven yards that forced the field goal.

The Bucs let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers later in the first quarter. After a Royals punt was downed on the Bears 3-yard line, the Tampa Bay defense had a huge three-and-out. The Bears only netted one yard, forcing punter Brad Maynard to boot the football from his own end zone. He hooked the punt badly and it only went 27 yards giving Tampa Bay great field position at the Chicago 31-yard line.

But on the Buccaneers' first play, quarterback Brad Johnson, who was only 18-of-40 for 191 yards and two disastrous interceptions, tried to hit third wide receiver Karl Williams on a seam route into the end zone. The only dilemma was that Williams lost his footing and couldn't jump for the ball, but Chicago strong safety Tony Parrish didn't have that problem. He leaped just inside the goal line and came down with the pigskin for the first of four turnovers by the Buccaneers.

The Bucs knotted the score at 3-3 at 7:50 of the first half as the defense presented the offense with a short field. On a first-and-10 from their own 29-yard line, Miller was hit on the arm by defensive end Marcus Jones, who had one sack, as he was trying to throw deep. The ball fluttered like a wounded duck and was intercepted by cornerback Donnie Abraham at the Bears 42­yard line. Abraham, who is now the Bucs' all-time interceptor with 30 career picks, returned it 18 yards to the Bears 24-yard line.

After an initial first down, the drive stalled at the Chicago 7-yard line. Tampa Bay had to settle for a 25-yard field goal from kicker Martin Gramatica. The drive lasted 2:44 travelling 17 yards in six plays.

On their next possession, the Bears broke the deadlock. On a third-and-goal from the Tampa Bay 2-yard line Miller hit wide receiver Marty Booker in the back corner of the end zone, but he couldn't get his feet down in the field of play.

Or did he? Chicago head coach Dick Jauron challenged the ruling and referee Bob McElwee upheld the objection giving the Bears a 10-3 advantage. The big performance in the six-play, 64 yard drive was a 62-yard Miller to wide receiver David Terrell, who had three snags for 94 yards. The bomb was thrown down the left side off a Miller scramble and Terrell took the ball to the Bucs 2-yard line, which led to the go-ahead score. Edinger's extra point was good and the Bears had a 10-3 lead with 4:36 to go in the second quarter.

The Bucs offense then proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot not once, but twice before halftime. The first wound came quickly after a 36-yard kick return by returner Frank Murphy that gave the Bucs great field position at their own 44-yard line. Facing a third-and-9, Johnson hit wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who had 119 yards on seven catches, on a crossing route. No. 19 broke several tackles on the 47-yard gain, but fumbled the ball at the Chicago 8-yard line when he was hit from behind by cornerback Walt Harris. The ball was scooped up by Parrish at their own 1-yard line and returned 21 yards to the Bears 22-yard line. Luckily this didn't come back to haunt the Bucs in terms of points as the Tampa Bay defense stopped the Bears on a three-and-out forcing another Maynard punt with this one travelling 51 yards.

On the next pewter miscue, the Bucs weren't as lucky. Starting at their own 39-yard line after a nifty 19-yard punt return by Williams, Tampa Bay moved to the Chicago 27-yard line in five plays. Facing a second-and-1, Johnson was sacked by blitzing linebacker Warrick Holdman and separated from the football. The ball was picked up by Chicago reserve nose tackle Alfonso Boone at the Bears 41-yard line. The big defensive lineman rumbled six yards before being dropped by Bucs running back Warrick Dunn.

It only took Chicago six plays to move 25 yards allowing Edinger to convert a 46 yard field goal as time expired in the second quarter. The drive took 58 seconds of clock time and gave the Bears a 13-3 halftime advantage.

The second half was all Chicago with the Bears scoring a touchdown in each of the final two quarters. On their initial possession of the third quarter, after the Bucs went three-and-out with the second half kickoff, Chicago moved 69 yards in nine plays. This gave the Bears a commanding 20-3 lead with 8:11 remained in the third stanza on a circus catch by tight end Fred Baxter, who had two catches for 28 yards and a touchdown. Baxter warded off free safety Dexter Jackson and Barber on the touchdown. The 18-yard pass from Miller culminated a nine play, 69 yard drive that chewed up 5:10.

The final scoring drive of eight plays and 51 yards belonged to the Monsters of the Midway. With 11:25 left in the game, Thomas, who shredded the Bucs for 173 yards on 31 carries and a touchdown plus one catch for five yards, skirted right end for a five yard touchdown gallop. Edinger's PAT put the final score at 27-3 in favor of the Bears.

There's no doubt that the Bucs have dug themselves a big hole and the question is whether they can crawl out of it to get back into the playoff race. They will have the advantage of playing all three games at Raymond James Stadium, but the competition is top-notch. It all starts with the first step and that's the New Orleans Saints who will be coming off a short week due to the fact that they will be hosting the St. Louis Rams on Monday Night. If the Bucs win, they're back in the hunt. If they lose, the Bucs' playoff hopes stop there.


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