Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Buccaneers are NFC Central Champions!

An 11-5 record earns Tampa Bay a first-round bye

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FB Mike Alstott scored a touchdown to help the Buccaneers run away with the division title.

For the first time in 18 years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can say they are champions of the NFC Central Division. With a rugged 20-6 downing of the Chicago Bears in the season finale today at windy but unseasonably warm Soldier Field, the Buccaneers won a team-record 11th game and took home their first division crown since 1981.

The Bucs won more than that on Sunday. With the victory, they joined St. Louis as the two NFC teams that will be enjoying a bye next weekend. The Bucs and Rams will host the Wild Card round winners on the weekend of January 15-16.

It would be safe to assume that the game followed a pattern designed by Tampa Bay Head Coach, as a defensive struggle turned in the Buccaneers' favor late in the first half thanks to the all-important turnover. An interception by CB Donnie Abraham and a fumble recovery by DE Steve White led to 10 points for Tampa Bay in the final five minutes of the first half. Though the second half was a back-and-forth affair, the Bucs never surrendered that initial lead.

What Dungy surely did not appreciate, however, were a string of lost opportunities for the Buccaneers that kept the game well within reach for Chicago until midway through the fourth quarter. Abraham's interception was actually returned for a touchdown, but an illegal block penalty brought it back out to the 29 and Tampa Bay eventually settled for a field goal. Early in the third quarter, the Bucs narrowly missed converting a third-down at the Bears' 30 and were further thwarted when Martin Gramatica's field goal from 47 yards out was blocked.

Still, those moments became little but footnotes when the Bucs mounted an 80-yard game-clinching touchdown drive that drained six minutes off the clock. RB Warrick Dunn started the impressive march with a season-long 33-yard run, breaking tackles up the middle before streaking to the left sideline. QB Shaun King finished it with a six-yard pass to TE Dave Moore, who twisted sidewise in the air to record his 17th career touchdown.

Dungy was also sure to be pleased by the Bucs' rejuvenated rushing attack, which picked up a total of 144 yards on 39 carries. Though FB Mike Alstott had a 1,000-yard season in sight if he could pick up 115 against the Bears, the rushing load was evenly split, with the big fullback picking up 64 yards on 22 carries and Dunn adding 80 yards on 16 totes. It was Alstott who scored the Bucs' first touchdown, however, completing a 14-yard second quarter drive by running one yard around right end on third-and-goal in the closing seconds of the first half.

The win was Tampa Bay's fifth straight over Chicago and its second straight victory in Soldier Field. That streak is as much an indication of the turnaround in the NFC Central as Tampa Bay's spot on top. Only recently, Chicago had a streak of 16 wins in 17 games played in Soldier Field and owned 30 victories in 39 games overall. This year, the Bucs swept the season series for the second straight year and allowed the often potent Chicago offense just three field goals in two games.

QB Shaun King, who has started the Bucs' last five games after a shoulder injury sustained by Trent Dilfer in Seattle in November, continued to perform under pressure. King was an impressive 18 for 24 today despite the strong winds at field level, passing for 178 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. By far his favorite target was second-year man Jacquez Green, who hauled in 10 of those passes for 113 yards. Not only was that Green's second career 100-yard game, it was also equal to the most passes ever caught in a single game by a Buccaneer wide receiver. The team record is 13, set by running back James Wilder.

On defense, the Buccaneers got a visibly strong effort from White, who had one of the Bucs' two sacks, made several other tackles in the Chicago backfield and recovered the key fumble in the second quarter to set up Alstott's touchdown. With Tampa Bay keeping Chicago from converting on any of its 12 third-down tries, the Bucs managed to hold onto the ball for over 36 minutes. QB Cade McNown, a rookie like King, was impressive in his ability to evade the Bucs' strong rush, but was held to just 20 completions in 42 tries.

The Buccaneers now take a week off to watch the NFL's Wild Card round before going back into action at Raymond James Stadium in the divisional round.

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