It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Playoffs

Decembe 29 - Tampa Bay all but wrapped up the sixth and final spot in the NFC playoffs with a crushing 22-10 win over Baltimore. A loss by Atlanta on Sunday at Miami means the Bucs will be playoff-bound. Tampa Bay used a strong ground game and great play on defense and special teams to overcome the Ravens on Saturday Night Football.

TAMPA - It was turn back the clock night at Raymond James Stadium. In a hard-hitting, throwback contest on Monday Night Football's Saturday night version, the Tampa Bay Bucs defeated the Baltimore Ravens 22-10 in a game that more resembled football in the 1960s than the 21st century version.

With the win, the Buccaneers moved to 9-6 and barring a complete collapse in the season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles, as well as a lot of lucky bounces for the Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay has secured the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC.

As for the Ravens, also at 9-6, they will have wait until next week to be assured of a spot in the AFC playoffs.

The Bucs parlayed strong defense and efficient offense with some great special teams play to run their December home record in the Tony Dungy era to 13-1 and a perfect 10-0 at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay also improved their home record on Monday Night Football to 5-1

On the Ravens' first series, cornerback Ronde Barber, who had five tackles and four passes defensed, picked off his 10th pass of the season at the Baltimore 40-yard line. It was a double deflection off the hand of linebacker Derrick Brooks, who had a team-leading 15 tackles and a big interception, and the knee of linebacker Jamie Duncan and into Barber's waiting arms. The Tampa Bay corner returned the theft six yards to the Ravens 34-yard line.

Barber's tenth theft marks the first time this has happened in the NFL since Mark Carrier swiped 10 balls in 1990. It also set a new franchise record.

But the Bucs offense was unable to capitalize on the turnover though and were forced to punt after three plays netted a minus 1 yards.

The majority of the rest of the first quarter was a battle of field position. Both punters, the Bucs' Mark Royals, who punted seven times for a 34.9 yard average, and the Ravens Kyle Richardson, who also had seven boots for a 38.7 average, exchanged a good punt and a bad punt. Royals dropped a perfect 33-yarder on the Ravens' 2-yard line then shanked a 26-yard effort while Richardson launched a 45-yard boot from his own 4-yard line to get the Ravens out of trouble then sliced a 29-yarder off the side of his foot.

The Buccaneers scored first at the 3:29 mark of the opening period. Newly signed kicker Doug Brien, who finished with 10 points on three field goals and a PAT in his first game as a Buccaneer, blasted a 42-yard field goal inside the right upright to put the Pewter Pirates up 3-0. The score culminated an eight-play drive that traveled 36 yards in 3:53 seconds.

The big play in the series was a third-and-9 aerial from Brad Johnson, who was a modest 19-of-29 for 90 yards, to tight end Dave Moore for eight yards. Even though the reception by Moore came up a yard short of the first down it did move the football into field goal range. Moore finished with three catches for 21 yards.

The Ravens immediately answered that score with a touchdown. Quarterback Elvis Grbac, who was 21-of-37 for 205 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, hit wide receiver Travis Taylor, who finished with four catches for 51 yards and one touchdown, on a fade route in the right side of the end zone. The Ravens wideout got away with an obvious push off against Pro Bowl cornerback Donnie Abraham with 14:00 to go in the second period. A successful extra point by kicker Matt Stover put Baltimore ahead by a 7-3 score.

The drive took 4:29 of clock time as Baltimore marched 69 yards in 10 plays. Running back Terry Allen, who rushed for a respectable 74 yards in 20 carries and caught four passes for 21 yards, kept the drive alive with a hard-earned three yards on a third-and-one from the Tampa Bay 32-yard line to give Baltimore a fresh set of downs.

Midway through the second stanza the Bucs cut into the Ravens' lead with another Brien field goal with 7:38 remaining in the first half. This one was a 38-yarder and narrowed the Bucs' deficit to 7-6. It was set up by a 15-yard penalty for fair catch interference against Baltimore defensive end Adalius Thomas on a punt, giving Tampa Bay great starting field position at the Ravens 36-yard line.

The big play in the seven-play, 16-yard drive that ate 2:19 of clock time was a pass from Johnson to running back Warrick Dunn, who had two receptions for 14 yards and 13 rushes for 47 yards, for seven yards on a third-and-4 from the Baltimore 30-yard line to move the sticks.

Momentum moved to the Bucs' side on the Ravens' next series of downs. Forcing a punt after three plays netted only seven yards, Richardson had his punt blocked by tight end Todd Yoder. Rabih Abdullah, who also recovered a late fumble on the Bucs final kickoff, recovered the pigskin at the Ravens 30-yard line and returned it seven yards giving the offense a short field again. Yoder took advantage of rookie long snapper Joe Maese all night and nearly blocked another punt.

This time, the Tampa Bay offense started from the Ravens 23-yard line and fashioned a five-play, 17-yard drive that took 1:54 off the clock. Brien's third field goal of the game came with 3:58 left before intermission. This one was from 24 yards out and put Tampa Bay in front for good by a count of 9-7.

Yoder's punt block changed momentum, but the play that would take the heart out of the Ravens happened on Baltimore's ensuing possession. Facing a second-and-14 from his own 27-yard line Grbac tried to hit tight end Shannon Sharpe, who led the Ravens with five grabs for 38 yards, in the left flat. Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks stepped in front of the ill-advised pass at Bucs 46-yard line and took it 55 yards to the Ravens 1-yard line. Only a touchdown saving tackle at the right pylon by back up running back Moe Williams kept Brooks out of the end zone.

The Bucs scored on the next play. Johnson took a shot from Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, but wiggled into the end zone on a quarterback sneak with 3:05 left in the second quarter. That play padded the Bucs' lead to 16-7.

After a scoreless third period that saw Brien miss a 40-yard effort, the Ravens cut the Bucs' lead to 16-10 with 13:26 left in the game. A Stover field goal of 24 yards ended an eight-play drive that took 3:31 to cover 64 yards. A huge play in the drive was when an apparent Raven touchdown pass was negated by a false start infraction whistled on Baltimore guard Edwin Mulitalo that forced the Ravens to settle for three points instead of seven.

Tampa Bay closed out the scoring with 1:35 left in the game. The Bucs defense forced the Ravens to turn the football over on downs. Two plays later, Mike Alstott, who rushed for 80 yards against Baltimore, used an off-tackle play to the left that had worked well throughout the second half and followed blocks by left tackle Kenyatta Walker, fullback Jameel Cook, tight end Dave Moore and pulling right guard Cosey Coleman to rumble into the end zone from 32 yards out. On the last three yards, Alstott bulled his way past cornerback Chris McAlister to score.

The Bucs' try for the two-point conversion failed leaving the final score 22-10 with Tampa Bay on top and sending a majority of the 65,619 fans home happy and excited about a likely playoff berth.

The Bucs Aren't In The Playoffs If...
? Bucs lose to Eagles next week AND
? Falcons win at Miami & at St. Louis AND
? Saints do not win 2 games AND
? Giants do not win 2 games AND
combined margins of what would be Bucs' loss to Eagles and Falcons' win over Rams equals or exceeds 80 points
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