Saints Go Marching Out

December 24 - Tampa Bay comes out of the gate firing on all cylinders to bury New Orleans - and perhaps the Saints' playoff hopes - with a huge 48-21. The Bucs inch closer to the postseason in a game of big plays and also help Tony Dungy's job security.

TAMPA - In a must-win game to keep their playoff hopes alive and possibly Tony Dungy's future in Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers thoroughly dominated the New Orleans Saints to the tune of 48-21 in front of 65,526 raucous Bucs fans. The Pewter Pirates, now 8-6, look to have the inside track for the last NFC playoff spot and the Saints, at 7-7, will need a minor miracle as well as a lot of help from their friends to make it to the postseason. Instead of marching into the playoffs, the Saints are marching out after the humiliating loss at Raymond James Stadium.

The Bucs tied their franchise all-time high of 48 points that was set in the season opener in 1987 against the Atlanta Falcons, and cornerback Ronde Barber set one record plus tied another. Barber will go into the franchise record book as the only Buccaneer to intercept three passes in one game. His single-season total of nine pilfers ties him for the franchise high with Cedric Brown who accomplished the feat 1981. But Barber wasn't the only record-setter against New Orleans.

Quarterback Brad Johnson set the club marks for pass completions with 324, which surpasses the 308 completions put up by Steve DeBerg in 1984. Johnson also set the franchise mark for pass attempts with 526 which overtook the 521 aerials put up by Doug Williams in 1980.

Placekicker Martin Gramatica tied the club record with four field goals in a game which had been accomplished 10 other times in Bucs history. Gramatica also broke the 1990 record of points scored via kicking with a 16-point performance breaking the previous high of 14 by Steve Christie.

Finally, Aaron Stecker set the franchise record for the longest kickoff return with an 86-yard gallop that shattered the former high of 77 yards by Vernon Turner in 1994.

The Buccaneer faithful had hardly settled into their seats when the fireworks began. Stecker teased the Tampa Bay following by breaking at least four tackles to take the opening kickoff 86 yards down to the Saints 14-yard line. Only a Michael Lewis tackle kept him from becoming the first Buccaneer to return a kickoff for a touchdown.

After running back Warrick Dunn, who had 10 carries for 32 yards and five catches for 46 yards plus a touchdown, ran up the middle for no gain, Johnson hit reserve wide receiver Karl Williams on an out route. Saints defensive back Kevin Mathis slipped trying to cover the move and Williams, who had two catches for 21 yards, was able to elude the Saints corner and stretch out into the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown to put the Buccaneers up 7-0 at 13:54 of the first period.

The two-play drive went for 14 yards taking up 1:06 of clock time. Gramatica successfully booted the extra point and the Bucs were off to the races with their first score on an opening possession this season.

The Saints tried to counter the opening two-play drive by the Tampa Bay offense, but their first drive was disastrous. After two probes on the ground by running back Ricky Williams, who had 26 yards in 10 carries to go along with four grabs for 15 yards, netted three yards Brooks tried to hit wide receiver Joe Horn, who finished with four catches for 55 yards and two scores, over the middle. Barber, lining up at the nickel cover back, was spying Brooks and stepped in front of the aerial. Barber returned the pigskin 15 yards down the right sideline to the Saints 12-yard line where tackle Daryl Terrell made a touchdown-saving tackle.

All that did was delay the inevitable for New Orleans. After Johnson scrambled for nine yards on his only run of the contest to get the ball to the Saints 3-yard line, the Bucs sent running back Mike Alstott, who had 101 yards in 24 carries and a touchdown, behind fullback Jameel Cook, who caught two passes for 23 yards and was a devastating blocker all game, on three straight thrusts up the middle. The first and second gained one yard each with the third resulting in a 1-yard touchdown jaunt. The drive took four plays to go 12 yards and took only 2:07 to accomplish. The successful Gramatica conversion made the score 14-0 Tampa Bay at the 10:17 mark of the opening stanza.

The Bucs scored again after a 12-play, 85-yard drive which ended in a 20-yard Gramatica field goal. The drive took 4:54 and it increased their lead to 20-0 with 3:43 left in the opening period. The Bucs had a first-and-goal at the New Orleans 2-yard and attempted three passes that all fell incomplete. The big play that kept the drive going was a 13-yard connection on third-and-8 between Johnson and tight end Dave Moore, who had three catches for 55 yards and a touchdown.

Another Gramatica field goal, this one of the 24-yard variety and the second of the four he will kick, on the Bucs first possession of the second quarter put the Pewter Pirates up 20-0 with 7:11 left before halftime. The 12-play drive took 6:03 to cover 62 yards with the big play being a Johnson to wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who had two catches for 41 yards, for 16 yards on a third-and-3 from the Saints 26-yard line.

The Bucs would score 10 more points before the end of the first 30 minutes of play. After a 43-yard punt by Gowins reached the end zone Tampa Bay started an eight play, 80 yard drive from it's own 20-yard line. Dunn ended the drive 3:31 later with a 17-yard touchdown off of a screen pass from Johnson. The Gramatica kick was good and the Bucs were up 23-0 with 63 seconds of playing time remaining.

On the first play after the ensuing kickoff, Brooks was picked off by free safety Dexter Jackson when he tried to hit Horn at the New Orleans 45-yard line. No. 34 returned the pigskin 29 yards to the Saints 16 before being tackled by Williams. Four plays netted two yards so Gramatica split the uprights with 21 seconds left for a 30-0 bulge.

The Saints finally dented the scoreboard with 8:09 left in the third quarter. Brooks hit Horn on an 11-yard post pattern to culminate a nine play, 77-yard drive that took 3:55 of clock time. Kicker John Carney made the PAT to cut the Bucs lead to 30-7.

The Bucs answered that immediately with a 27-yard Gramatica field goal to extend their lead to 33-7 at 2:14 of the third quarter. The Bucs went 62 yards in 11 plays and ate up 6:01 of clock time.

Each team traded two touchdowns each in the final period. Brooks hit tight end Eddie Williams and Horn for 16 and 10 yard scored respectively. Johnson hit Moore from four yards out and Barber returned an interception of his old collegiate teammate from Virginia 36 yards to cap the scoring.

The Bucs did outscore the Saints in that period, 15-14, because quarterback Shaun King ran in the two-point conversion. The Bucs weren't trying to run up the score but had no kicker after Gramatica tweaked his hamstring after Tampa Bay's first fourth quarter touchdown. In fact, strong safety John Lynch was pressed into service twice for kickoff duties late in the final period.

The Bucs defense forced four turnovers, all via the interception route, and that led to 17 points and had three sacks extended their streak of games with at least one sack to 42 as well as 157 yards on the ground. Tampa Bay's offense scored 17 first quarter points which, is more than their cumulative total of 16 over the first 13 games and controlled the time of possession with 36:13 to the Saints 13:47 while playing turnover free football.

This type of effort will be needed next week if the Bucs plan on beating Baltimore and continuing their winning ways en route to a playoff berth.

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