Cold Remedy

December 29 - Tampa Bay has the prescription to end the cold weather jinx, beat the Chicago Bears 15-0, and come away with a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoff race.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The Tampa Bay Bucs had never won a football game when the temperature at kickoff was below 40 degrees. Twenty-one times the Bucs have taken the field when the mercury was below the magic 40-degree mark and all 21 times they came up short on the scoreboard.

The Bucs went into Champaign, Ill. with the temperature at 38 degrees at kickoff, but for the first time in franchise history, the Buccaneers came away with a 15-0 victory over the Bears. In the process, the Bucs set franchise records with six road victories in a season and 12 wins in a season. That secured at least one home playoff game and the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoff race, which gave Tampa Bay a first-round bye week, thanks to an earlier loss by Green Bay to the New York Jets.

The prescription for their cold remedy had three major ingredients. The first component was a shutout performance by the best defense in the NFL. The second element was a five-for-five field goal effort by kicker Martin Gramatica. The final part was a turnover-free offensive showing, which featured a potent running game that produced 161 yards. Mix them all together and it was the elixir that ended the cold weather jinx for the Pewter Pirates. Head coach Jon Gruden was aware of the streak and was happy that it came to end.

"We're proud of the coaches and the players as well as the fans that helped us out," Gruden said. "It's the first time we won it cold weather so we're going to go home and celebrate. We're going to go back to Tampa and do that because we like it there better. To win 12 games and put that cold weather story behind us is something we're very proud of."

Gramatica was the offensive star of the game with five field goals of 30, 32, 33, 26 and 30 yards to account for all 15 Bucs points. This allowed the Bucs to lock up the NFC second seed in the playoffs and a week of rest to prepare to host a divisional playoff game at Raymond James Stadium. These facts, along with ending the cold weather calamity, were not far from Gramatica's mind.

"The biggest thing is that we have the bye week," Gramatica said. "We have a lot of nicked up guys that can take advantage of this. Plus, the weather deal is over. Hopefully, people won't talk about that any more. They told us it was 34 degrees at kickoff so we'll take it."

On the opposite side of the football, Monte Kiffin's troops solidified their number one ranking in the NFL with a whitewashing of Chicago. Four interceptions, one each by linebacker Derrick Brooks and reserve cornerback Dwight Smith sandwiched a pair by cornerback Brian Kelly, took away any momentum that the Monsters of the Midway had.

"It's nice to have the number one defense," Gruden said. "We need the number one defense. Hopefully, we can now get the number one passer in the NFC ready for the playoffs. I think having the bye week will help us get a lot of guys rejuvenated. We're confident in ourselves, but we still have a lot to prove. You can bet that I'll get some sleep tonight."

The offense played error-free football, which was a huge part of the Bucs' win. Not allowing the Bears any short fields or momentum-changing big plays was a big part of the win, according to Gruden.

"No turnovers was big," Gruden conceded. "We still would like to eliminate some of the sacks, but I credit Chicago for most of that. They blitzed 40 different times tonight, but some of them, we need to do a better job picking up."

The first quarter was scoreless. Each team was more interested in not making a mistake than taking chances. Each team was playing without their normal starting quarterback. Tampa Bay had Rob Johnson filling in for starting signal caller Brad Johnson, who is still nursing a sore back which Sports Illustrated has reported to be a cracked vertabrae.

Chicago had Henry Burris making his first start under center due to the fact that Chris Chandler was ruled out of the contest with the aftereffects of a concussion which he sustained last week in the loss to the Carolina Panthers. For that reason alone, both teams played it close to the vest from an offensive standpoint, and it was a defensive struggle for the first 15 minutes.

The Bucs finally dented the scoreboard with 3:22 left before halftime. Gramatica split the uprights with his first field goal from the right hash marks. The boot culminated a 12-play drive that took 6:48 to cover 48 yards of real estate and put Tampa Bay ahead 3-0.

The Tampa Bay defense set up the next Buccaneers score. The Bears took the ensuing kickoff for a touchback and started a drive at their own 20-yard line. Five plays later, Chicago had a first-and-10 at the Bucs' 25-yard line and we threatening to, at least, tie the score before halftime. Burris attempted to hit receiver Marty Booker, but Brooks stepped in front and picked off the pass at the Tampa Bay 22-yard line. Brooks had visions of his fifth return for a touchdown this season but was brought down after 44 yards at the Chicago 34-yard line.

The Bucs had already used two timeouts due to alignment miscommunications and didn't use their final timeout, but let precious seconds run off the game clock in their final drive before halftime.

With exactly 60 seconds left in the second quarter the Pewter Pirates went to the hurry up offense. Johnson completed a 16-yard strike to receiver Keyshawn Johnson and halfback Michael Pittman scampered four yards around right end, but neither player was able to get out of bounds to stop the clock. When Johnson spiked the ball on second-and-6 from the Bears 14-yard line there were only 12 ticks left before intermission. Rob Johnson tried to find Keyshawn Johnson again over the middle in the end zone, but the pass was broken up. That forced the Buccaneers to settle for another Gramatica field goal with two seconds left in the second quarter to extend the Tampa Bay lead to 6-0.

Gruden was not happy that he only had one timeout at his disposal because it meant that he had to bank it in case to Bucs couldn't stop the clock. The important thing was to come away with points after the defense had provided a short field.

"We needed to keep that time out in case we had a play in bounds," Gruden said. "We wanted to make sure we got at least a field goal. Fortunately we got three but we would have liked to have got seven."

The Bears, according to Gruden, were running a great deal of blitzes in the first half that the Bucs were having trouble picking up. That led directly to the four first half sacks of Johnson, but Tampa Bay was going to try and make some adjustments in the locker room during halftime.

"We have got to keep playing and we have to block a little bit better," Gruden said. "They blitzed on almost every second down so far in this game. We'll try and get some gap protections and help ourselves in the second half."

The third quarter proved scoreless as well, but the Bucs were able to put up three more Gramatica field goals in the final period. Two of the three were direct results of turnovers and the nine points put the game out of reach.

With the Green Bay loss to the New York Jets earlier in the week, the Bucs had all the motivation to get a win over the Bears. The team now gets a week off to get ready for the playoffs after taking care of business in Illinois. In Gruden's mind this is a big plus to the Buccaneers.

"Having the bye is like winning the first-round playoff game," Gruden said. "Honestly, if we win tonight we win next week automatically. That was kind of the motivation that we had. Now we're in the playoffs and we have a chance to play a big game in two weeks at home. Hopefully, it gives some of these guys a chance to get well including our quarterback. He's getting better, but that's a mystery that needs to be solved in the next seven or eight days."


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