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Jon Gruden's 10 Greatest Bucs Games, Part II

Posted Dec 13, 2017

A gutsy two-point call, two showdowns with a division rival and, of course, Super Bowl XXXVII are featured in the second half of our countdown

On Monday night, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will inducted former Head Coach Jon Gruden into the team's Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium. Gruden will be on hand to call the game as part of the ESPN Monday Night Football broadcast team, and he'll come down to the field for a halftime induction ceremony.

In recognition of Gruden's seven memorable seasons as the Buccaneers' head coach (2002-08), Buccaneers.com is running down the top 10 games during that tenure. Part I included two overtime stunners and two unforgettable wins over the Eagles. The Eagles feature prominently in Part II of our list, as well, as do two showdowns with the Falcons and a game memorable for one very gutsy fourth-quarter decision.

READ: Jon Gruden's 10 Greatest Bucs Games, Part I

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5.  Tampa Bay 34, Atlanta 10, Dec. 8, 2002

This is one of the few lopsided wins on the list, but it wasn't supposed to be that way. With Michael Vick emerging as one of the NFL's brightest stars, the Falcons had gone eight straight weeks without a loss and were arriving in Tampa just a half-game behind the division-leading Buccaneers. This battle for first in the South was so compelling that NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue chose to attend.

The Falcons' last loss before coming to Tampa was against the Buccaneers in Week Five, and Vick was knocked out of that one after just 12 passes. In the interim, he had developed into an MVP candidate through both his arm and his legs. A matchup of Vick against the league's best defense was what drew Tagliabue to town.

It was no contest. Vick made it through this game but was completely flummoxed by the Buccaneers' defense, particularly speedy linebacker Derrick Brooks. With Brooks as his shadow, Vick gained just nine yards on the ground, and he was equally ineffective through the air, completing 48% of his passes and throwing for just 125 yards. Meanwhile, Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson threw four touchdown passes, two each to Joe Jurevicius and Keenan McCardell. It was a clash of styles, and Johnson and the Buccaneers prevailed.

"The new wave is coming," said cornerback Ronde Barber. "But you can still win by taking three-step drops, reading defenses and making smart plays. It's the old-fashioned way of doing things and Brad is probably as good as there is at it right now."

The Buccaneers led 21-3 at halftime and eventually out-gained the Falcons in net yardage, 421 to 181. As Tampa Bay's dominance grew, Buccaneer players began to celebrate a little more than usual. Gruden wasn't thrilled by his players' dancing, but he understood where it was coming from.

"Well, on film there was a lot of that from the Falcon players," said the coach. "Some of our guys may have taken that personally. You know, the quarterback on the other team said he was going to play his best game of all time, and I believe when our guys made some plays they may have...I don't know if mimic is a good word, but they did a little bit of that dance. It's not something we're proud of here, but I think emotionally they were at a very, very high level yesterday."

4. Tampa Bay 27, Atlanta 24 (OT), Dec. 24, 2005

Even though the Carolina game described above ended up being the difference between two 11-5 teams at the end of the 2005 season, it was in Week 16 that the Buccaneers turned near disaster into a likely division title.

The 9-5 Buccaneers, trailing Carolina by one game in the standings with two to go, welcomed Michael Vick and the 8-6 Falcons to town. Elsewhere, three other NFC teams started the day at 8-6 and two – Washington and Dallas – would go on to win. The Buccaneers and Falcons traded the lead back and forth throughout the afternoon, with T.J. Duckett giving the visitors a 24-17 edge with a two-yard touchdown run with four minutes left to play. The Buccaneers countered with a long, clock-killing drive that led to a first down at the Atlanta 15. Three plays later, it was fourth-and-one with 31 seconds to go and the Bucs had no choice but to go for it.

Gruden gave the ball to the star of the day, rookie running back Cadillac Williams, who had 150 rushing yards on 31 carries. Williams started up the middle but then suddenly bounced outside, got around the left tackle and ran not only for the first down but all the way into the end zone to tie the game.

The Buccaneers won the toss in overtime but nearly gave the way moments later when Edell Shepherd fumbled the kickoff to start the extra period. Recovering at the Bucs' 18, the Falcons called two runs for Duckett then brought on Todd Peterson to try a 28-yard field goal. The Bucs were staring at a near-certain loss, which would have left the division title in Carolina's control and put Tampa Bay into the middle of a mess of contenders. The chances of missing the playoffs completely was very real.

That's when defensive end Dewayne White saved the day. Amazingly, he blocked Peterson's kick and the game carried on. Almost as incredibly, Matt Bryant then missed a 27-yard field goal at the end of the Bucs' first drive of overtime. After an exchange of punts, the Falcons had the ball deep in their own territory with less than two minutes to play. Facing a fourth-and-two at their own 24, the Falcons were scrambling to find out what a tie would do to their playoff hopes. If they punted, that was likely the best outcome they could hope for. The tension at Raymond James Stadium was sky-high.

"You don't think you'll ever go through a game as exciting as the Redskins game, and this one tops it," said Chris Simms afterwards.

The Falcons elected to punt and Mark Jones returned it 28 yard to the Atlanta 49. Simms completed passes to tight ends Alex Smith and Anthony Becht to get into field goal range, and, with 15 seconds left, Bryant nailed the 41-yard game-winner. The Bucs would go on to beat New Orleans at home the next weekend and win the division title over Carolina on a tiebreaker.

"I'm very proud of our team," said Gruden. "I've just got to keep reminding myself that the game is officially over. That was a real gut-check."

3. Tampa Bay 36, Washington 35, Nov. 13, 2005

Even in a vacuum, the final score of this game indicates how exciting it proved to be. The game lands this high on the list because it turned on one of the gutsiest in-game coaching decisions in franchise history.

After starting the 2005 season with a 5-1 run, the Bucs lost consecutive games to the 49ers and Panthers before welcoming 5-3 Washington to town in Week 10. Tampa Bay jumped out to an early lead on two Mike Alstott touchdown runs, both patented short dives. Alstott had become something of a lost man in the Bucs' 2005 offense, with just 11 carries, 136 yards from scrimmage and two total touchdowns in the first nine games. Buc fans had been loudly calling for more A-Train, and they would get their wish on this afternoon.

The Redskins stormed back from a 21-10 second-quarter deficit to take a 28-21 lead on a 17-yard Ladell Betts run in the third periods. Chris Simms responded with his second touchdown pass of the game to tie it, but Washington went  back on top in the middle of the fourth quarter on an eight-yard Clinton Portis touchdown run. The Bucs' next drive ended on a failed fourth-down pass from the Washington 12-yard line, but Simms got the ball back one more time with two minutes to play and drove his team to the Redskins' 30-yard line. Wide receiver Edell Shepherd, who had all of six career receptions entering the game, had caught a key 46-yard pass on an early scoring drive, and Simms looked to him again. This time Shepherd got behind the defense down the middle of the field and Simms hit him on a 30-yard bomb. Shepherd dived to make the catch, crossing the goal line in midair.

With a minute left, the Bucs lined up to kick the extra point that would probably send the game to overtime. In its zeal to block the kick, Washington drew a delay of game penalty, which Gruden elected to take on the ensuing kickoff. However, when the Redskins blatantly jumped offsides and blocked Matt Bryant's kick, Gruden changed his mind and sent the offense back on the field. The accepted penalty put the ball at the one and Gruden went back to the man of the hour, giving the ball to the greatest goal-line runner in franchise history. Alstott had to bounce off several Redskin defenders and make a second-effort lunge to the white stripe, but he got it there – if barely – and the Bucs had the winning two-point conversion.

After the game, wide receiver Joey Galloway acknowledged that Gruden had put himself on the line with the decision to go for two but said the entire sideline was in agreement with the call. Gruden simply couldn't live with not going for it.

"It crossed my mind," said Gruden of sticking with the kicking unit after the second penalty. "But after the penalty, I wouldn't have been able to wake up not knowing what we would have done with Alstott."

2. Tampa Bay 27, Philadelphia 10, Jan. 19, 2003

In terms of its emotional impact, this game rivaled the Super Bowl for Buccaneers players and fans both. In the broadest sense, the Buccaneers cleared the one hurdle that had confounded them, beating the Eagles after two playoff losses in Philadelphia and another regular-season defeat at Veterans Stadium earlier in the '02 season.

The night before the contest, which would decide which team would advance to Super Bowl XXXVII, Gruden delivered an important message to his team, particularly in light of how previous games in Philadelphia had unfolded. Things might go bad early, Gruden told the players. If they do, weather the storm, keep fighting and overcome it.

Those words were prescient, as Brian Mitchell opened the game with a 70-yard kickoff return and Duce Staley scored on a 20-yard touchdown run 45 seconds into the first quarter. The Bucs were able to heed Gruden's advice, however, answering immediately with a field goal drive. Even when Brad Johnson was picked off a few minutes later, the Bucs got a defensive stop in their own territory and then engineered a 96-yard touchdown drive to take the lead for good.

Wide receiver Joe Jurevicius wasn't there for Gruden's speech at the team hotel on Saturday night. He had flown in late, staying in Tampa as long as possible to be with his ailing newborn son, Michael. No one had more of an emotional hurdle to overcome on Sunday than Jurevicius, and thus it became one of the most unforgettable moments in franchise history when he took a short crossing pass on that 96-yard drive and seemed to find a new gear, speeding 71 yards to the Philadelphia five. Mike Alstott powered it in from there on two runs.

Tampa Bay's defense took over from there. Donovan McNabb was strip-sacked twice, once by Simeon Rice and once by a blitzing Ronde Barber. Barber also broke up four passes in the game and picked off one, clinching the game with perhaps the single most important play in franchise history. Down 20-10, the Eagles were rallying in the fourth quarter behind the incredible improvisational work of McNabb. After getting a first down at the Bucs' 10 with 6:31 to play, the Eagles were close to putting the Bucs, who had enjoyed a comfortable lead for much of the day, into a very uncomfortable situation. Barber put an end to that.

Remembering McNabb's quick reaction to one of his blitzes earlier in the game, Barber faked like he was coming into the backfield again. As he expected, McNabb responded by trying to throw a quick pass to Antonio Freeman, in the spot he believed Barber had vacated. Instead, the savvy Buc defender had dropped back from the line and, as soon as he saw McNabb turn Freeman's way, had darted into the path of the throw. Barber intercepted the pass on a dead run and didn't stop until, 92 yards later, he crossed the goal line to send the Bucs to San Diego.

After the game, Buccaneers Executive Vice President Joel Glazer pondered how far the franchise had come, and how quickly it had reached the top during Gruden's tenure.

"I'm numb," said Glazer. "What a difference a year makes. We put our franchise demons in the ground today, accomplishing something this franchise had never done. What more can you say about Jon Gruden? He comes into Tampa and in his first year we're in the Super Bowl. He said it right in his very first news conference in Tampa: You either feel pressure or you apply pressure. Jon Gruden stomps on pressure."

1. Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21, Jan. 26, 2003

Some Buccaneer fans might rank these last two games in the opposite order, but the fact remains that winning the Super Bowl was the pinnacle of franchise achievement. The NFC Championship Game might have had a bit more drama, but the Lombardi Trophy trumps the George Halas Trophy every time.

This was the last Super Bowl that was played only one week after the conference championship games, so the preparation schedule was tight. The Buccaneers landed in Tampa late Sunday night and flew out to San Diego the next morning. Gruden and his coaching staff stayed behind an extra day to crank out their game-planning at old One Buccaneer Place. Once the team got together to start practicing, however, Gruden was more than ready.

Having coached the Buccaneers' Super Bowl opponent, Oakland, the previous four years, Gruden was quite familiar with their offense. He famously stepped into the huddle during Friday's practice and directed a drive for the Raiders scout-team offense, demonstrating how well-prepared the Bucs were for what NFL MVP Rich Gannon and Oakland would try to do. That familiarity and confidence would produce incredible results, as the Buccaneers set Super Bowl records with five interceptions and three pick-sixes.

Once again, however, it started badly for the Buccaneers. Brad Johnson was hit as he threw his second pass of the game, leading to a Charles Woodson interception and a Raiders field goal. Simeon Rice kept Gannon from turning the takeaway into seven points by screaming around right end and sacking the quarterback on third down. It was 3-3 when Gruden's preparation began to pay off. Safeties John Lynch and Dexter Jackson knew how Gannon would look off a certain pass and try to go down the opposite seam, and that led to two Jackson interceptions in the first half. Mike Alstott gave the Bucs a 13-3 lead with a two-yard run up the gut and Keenan McCardell scored the first of his two touchdowns just before halftime.

After a second McCardell touchdown in the third quarter, cornerback Dwight Smith began the onslaught with an interception in front of a fallen Jerry Rice, returning it 44 yards for a touchdown. Down 34-3, the Raiders did mount a mini-comeback, aided by blocked punt returned for a score. It was 34-21 with two minutes to play when – as radio legend Gene Deckerhoff said – Derrick Brooks stuck "the dagger" in the Raiders' hopes with a 44-yard pick-six. In the closing seconds, Smith scored again on another interception, and Gruden celebrated as the defender ran by with repeated pumps of his fist, yelling, "Boom! Boom! Boom!"

The Buccaneers celebrated their first title on the Qualcomm Stadium field, then again on Monday night in front of a packed Raymond James Stadium crowd, and finally on Tuesday with a parade through Tampa viewed by hundreds of thousands of fans. The Bucs had reached the top of the league seven years after Malcolm Glazer purchased the franchise. It was a true team effort from top to bottom, but the Glazers believed that hiring Jon Gruden had been a very important piece of the puzzle.

"What Jon Gruden did this season was nothing short of incredible," said Joel Glazer. "A first-year coach, coming into an organization that had somewhat of a structure and staff in place, to fit right in and earn everyone's respect and lead them to a Super Bowl, that's nearly impossible."