On Monday night the Bucs were in the giving mood, handing the Pittsburgh Steelers with an early Christmas present. Two fumbles deep inside Steelers territory and an interception return for a touchdown gift-wrapped a 17-7 win and the AFC North title for Pittsburgh.
The loss dropped the Bucs out of contention for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. The Philadelphia Eagles clinched homefield with the Pewter Pirates loss to the Steelers.
With a win Sunday night on the road against the Chicago Bears the best the Buccaneers can do is claim the second seed in the NFC playoff race, but Tampa Bay will be counting on the Green Bay Packers coming out on the short end of the scoreboard when they head to New York to play the Jets.
The worst case scenario for Tampa Bay is a loss to the Bears in frigid Champaign, Ill. on Sunday night along with a win by the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night. Then the Bucs would slide into the fourth seed. Regardless of wherever they finish in the seeding, Tampa Bay will still get to host a playoff game by virtue of winning the NFC South.
Bucs coach Jon Gruden is more interested in creating momentum going into the playoffs than worrying about the different seeding scenarios.
"I'm not going to worry about that until later," Gruden said. "I'm not going to sit down and play general manager or head coach as to how we will adjust our schedule or adjust our rotations. We're going (to Champaign) to win the game and we need to win the game. We're all paid to coach and play and we have the last week of the season coming up in Champaign. We only have 53 guys. It's not like we can bring in the redshirts. We've got to play who we've got and we have to play to win. We'll go up there on Saturday and do what we normally do when we travel on the road."
The Bucs suffered a big loss when it was determined that starting quarterback Brad Johnson would not be able to play against Pittsburgh. Johnson was sidelined with a bruised back, but Gruden didn't believe that his play would have made a difference because backup signal caller Shaun King had the benefit of a full week of practice.
"We had a pretty good idea all week that he may not play," Gruden said. "He was listed as questionable and he was unable to perform on the practice field very much at all. Shaun King took almost all the work. We brought Brad over here early and he just didn't have the mobility to play tonight. With that said, we went with King and we relieved him in the third quarter with Rob Johnson."
The Steelers stormed right out the gate on offense. Pittsburgh took the opening kickoff and marched 81 yards in six plays to take the early lead with 12:01 left in the opening period. The Steelers' opening play was a 41-yard strike from quarterback Tommy Maddox to wide receiver Plaxico Burress over the outstretched arms of cornerback Ronde Barber that moved the ball from the Pittsburgh 19 to the Bucs' 40 and Tampa Bay never really recovered.
Five plays later Maddox hit reserve wide out Antwaan Randle El on a quick out in the left flat and he slithered inside the pylon to give Pittsburgh the early 7-0 advantage after only 2:59 of play.
The Steelers padded their lead to 14-0 with 11:10 left in the first period. On second-and-6 from the Tampa Bay 25-yard line, quarterback Shaun King tried to connect with receiver Keyshawn Johnson on a quick out. Cornerback Chad Scott stepped in front of the ball and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead in favor of the Steelers.
The offensive play call on the interception return was an abomination. The Bucs lined up with two tight ends, Ken Dilger and Ricky Dudley, and fullback Mike Alstott to the left with Johnson the lone receiver into the boundary on the right. With the only speedy threat being Johnson, it was easy for Scott to anticipate that the Bucs were going to run a short out. When King was forced to double-clutch the throw due to the pressure by the Steelers pass rush, Scott simply read the three-step drop and jumped the out route.
After forcing the Bucs to a three-and-out the Steelers took over at their own 22-yard line after a five yard return by Randle El of a 53-yard rocket by punter Tom Tupa. In 5:04 Pittsburgh marched all the way to the shadow of the Buccaneers goal line. Only a sack of Maddox by defensive end Simeon Rice, who has an NFC-leading 15.5 and extended a streak of 59-straight contests in which the Buccaneers have recorded a quarterback capture, on a third-and-2 from the Tampa Bay 6-yard line kept the Steelers out of the end zone.
Pittsburgh was forced to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Reed at 4:24 of the first stanza. The kick culminated a 70-yard drive in eight plays and gave the Steelers a commanding 17-0 first quarter lead.
Two big fumbles cost each team scoring opportunities in the second quarter. An Alstott fumble at the Steelers 2-yard line on the first play of the second quarter snuffed out a promising drive after Tampa Bay decided to take three points off the board. Linebacker Jason Gildon was flagged for holding on a successful 50-yard field goal by kicker Martin Gramatica, but the Bucs disdained the points for an automatic first down. The Steelers returned the favor a little over three minutes to go before halftime when running back Amos Zeroue was separated from the pigskin at the Bucs' 11-yard line. Dexter Jackson recovered for Tampa Bay.
The Bucs turned it over again in the Pittsburgh red zone when Johnson had the ball batted from his grasp by Casey Hampton while dropping back to throw. Again the Pewter Pirates came away empty from a trip deep into Steelers territory.
The Bucs finally dented the scoreboard with a Johnson-to-Johnson 18-yard scoring strike with 1:14 left in the game. Gramatica's PAT cut the lead to 17-7, but it was too little, too late when Gramatica had his attempted onside kick recovered by cornerback Dewayne Washington.
The season, in terms of playoff seeding, all comes down to winning a cold weather game against the Bears. The Bucs, who are 0-21 in cold weather games, will have to win a sub-freezing temperature game to possibly secure a second seed and a much needed bye week.
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