ELEVENTH HEAVEN

December 15 - Tampa Bay survived a trip to the Lions' new jungle to win its 11th game and clinch a playoff spot. They also kept their 2nd seed in the NFC playoff race.

DETROIT - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have guaranteed themselves a spot in the NFC playoffs with a less-than-spectacular 23-20 triumph against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. The Bucs moved their record to a franchise-best 11-3, as well as tying the franchise mark for most road wins in a season with five. The Lions dropped to three up and 11 down, but with a little luck and some better coaching, they could have won three or four more games easily.

The Buccaneers never trailed, but it took a late 38-yard field goal with 3:04 left in the game from kicker Martin Gramatica to bail them out. With Sunday losses by both the New Orleans Saints (9-5) and the Atlanta Falcons (8-5-1), the Pewter Pirates have a stranglehold on the NFC South division crown. One more victory by the Buccaneers or another loss by the Saints and Tampa Bay clinches the inaugural NFC South title.

The Lions had one last chance to tie the game but a 57-yard field goal by kicker Jason Hanson came up short. This was after some questionable coaching and clock management decisions by the Detroit coaching staff.

The Lions burned their second time out on fourth down to decide whether to kick the field goal or go for the first down. This left Detroit with only one timeout remaining, and when running back Mike Alstott converted a third-and-7 from midfield with a 10-yard jaunt around right end, the Buccaneers were able to just run out the clock.

Tampa Bay got off to a great start as running back Aaron Stecker took the opening kickoff back a season-long 67 yards to the Lions' 26-yard line, and the Bucs were on their way to their first points of the game. Tampa Bay dented the scoreboard at 10:43 of the opening period when Gramatica nailed a 20-yard field goal from the right hash mark to put the Buccaneers up 3-0. The drive stalled on the 2-yard line after the Pewter Pirates moved 24 yards on six plays taking 4:17 of clock time.

On their first series, Detroit moved the football deep into Bucs territory on seven consecutive running plays. With starting running back James Stewart inactive for the game, the Lions started backup running back Aveion Cason and he responded with 62 yards on 10 carries. In fact, 17 of those hard-earned yards came on the first series on four carries.

It wasn't until the Lions threw their first two passes, on the eighth and ninth play of the drive, that the Detroit drive stalled. Quarterback Joey Harrington threw an incomplete pass in the direction of wide receiver Bill Schroeder and was sacked for a 10-yard loss back to the Tampa Bay 39-yard line by cornerback Ronde Barber.

That sack not only pushed Detroit out of field goal range, but it increased the Bucs' streak of consecutive games with a sack to 58. John Jett dropped one down near the Tampa Bay goal line. Longsnapper Bradford Banta downed the pigskin at the Pewter Pirates' 4-yard line and the Lions had the Bucs pinned deep in their own territory. Detroit had Tampa Bay right where they wanted them or, at least, that's what they thought.

All the Bucs proceeded to do was go 96 yards in a dozen plays and moved out to a 10-0 lead at 14:17 of the second quarter. Running back Mike Alstott rambled off left tackle from a yard out to culminate a drive that burned 6:32 of game time. The A-Train followed excellent blocks by left tackle Roman Oben and tight end Warren Sapp (yes, that's right) along with a great kick out block by pulling guard Kerry Jenkins and a super lead block by fullback Darian Barnes. Alstott went in virtually untouched, and after a successful extra point by Gramatica, it looked like the rout was on.

Now the play of the game occurs and the Bucs weren't even a participant. Exit Harrington and enter back up Mike McMahon when the Lions' starting signal caller fell ill and had to be taken to a local hospital with what was diagnosed as an irregular heartbeat.

All McMahon did from that point on was lead the Lions on a 6-play drive that went 79 yards in 2:53 to cut the Bucs' lead to 10-7 with 11:24 left in the second period. McMahon hooked up with Schroeder who made a nice one-handed grab inside the 5-yard line and went the rest of the way untouched. Hanson was true with the conversion and Detroit had some momentum.

After stopping the Buccaneers on their next series, Detroit knotted the score at 10-10 with a 37-yard field goal by Hanson with 5:55 left before halftime. The kick ended a six-play drive that only had to go 43 yards in 3:06 after punter Tom Tupa sliced one out of bounds after only 27 yards.

That gave the Lions great starting field position at their own 38-yard line and they cash in to tie the score.

Tampa Bay answered Hanson's three-pointer with a Gramatica field goal of their own with 17 ticks left in the first half. The Buccaneers took 5:18 to march 67 yards from their own 23-yard line to the Lions 10-yard marker. Gramatica split the uprights from 28 yards to give the Pewter Pirates a 13-10 advantage going into halftime.

In only took the Lions 2:58 to tie the score at 13-13 coming out of halftime. Detroit marched 49 yards in five plays after wide receiver Eddie Drummond took the kickoff back 46 yards to the Lions' 45-yard line. The Buccaneers made a goal line stand at their own 6-yard line stopping reserve running back Rafael Cooper at the line of scrimmage on second-and-1 and Cason for no gain on third-and-1 as cornerback Dwight Smith knifed in to make the tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Hanson booted a 25-yard field goal at 12:02 of the third quarter.

Detroit had a chance to take the lead, but was stopped by the only turnover of the game. After a 39-yard pass from McMahon to Cason took the pigskin to the Bucs' 39-yard line, the Lions quarterback tried to hit wide receiver Germane Crowell on a quick slant. Middle linebacker Shelton Quarles deflected the pass straight up in the air and cradled the football for his second interception of the season.

The Bucs capitalized on the turnover to score the go-ahead touchdown with 10:08 left in the game. Running back Michael Pittman, in his best overall game as a Buccaneer, finally found the end zone from four yards out. It only took the Buccaneers 3:04 and a half dozen plays to go 58 yards. Gramatica's extra point put the Bucs up 20-13 but the fireworks were just beginning.

Drummond took the ensuing and started up the left sideline. Gramatica forced him to cut back to the middle of the field but couldn't make the tackle initially. Drummond jitterbugged around Barber, but was finally corralled by none other than Gramatica at the Tampa bay 5-yard line. A facemask penalty on Gramatica moved the ball to the 2-yard line and McMahon bootlegged into the end zone on the very next play. Hanson tied the score at 20 with 9:44 left in the game.

After an exchange of punts Tampa Bay took 3:55 to move to the game-winning field goal. Johnson hit tight end Ken Dilger for 23 yards with a play action pass on third-and-3 to keep the scoring drive alive.

Next up, the Bucs will seek revenge on Pittsburgh when they host the Steelers on Monday Night Football on December 23.


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