CB Ronde Barber set a team record with three interceptions, capping the scoring with a touchdown return in the fourth quarter
At the beginning of the day, it was called the most important regular-season game in years, perhaps ever for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
At the end, it was simply one of the Bucs' best games in years. Perhaps ever.
Knowing that the winner of today's game against the New Orleans Saints would have the upper hand in the race for the sixth playoff spot and the loser would be almost eliminated from contention, the Bucs responded with their most passionate effort of the season, destroying the Saints 48-21 and tying a team record for points scored.
The game started the way few Bucs games ever do – with a bang.
RB Aaron Stecker, on the 1,538th kickoff return in team history, barely kept his feet at the 13, then broke through three more tackles up the middle to rumble for 86 yards to open the game. It was the longest kickoff return in team history and it set up WR Karl Williams' 14-yard touchdown reception two plays later.
"We talked about it in our meetings last night, that we were going to need big plays and it wasn't necessarily going to be our big-name people," said Head Coach Tony Dungy after the Bucs moved to 8-6 on the season. "Aaron started it off, breaking several tackles."
That Stecker didn't get another chance to return a kickoff until eight minutes remained in the third quarter was a testament to how thorough the Bucs' first-half domination was.
By the time the halftime gun sounded, the Bucs had a 269-24 edge in total yards, a 15-1 first-downs advantage and the game's only three turnovers. They had also neutralized the Saints' two biggest weapons: running back Ricky Williams and the NFL's best pass rush. Williams had just seven rushing yards and 11 receiving yards in the first half, with no play longer than five yards, and Bucs' QB Brad Johnson was not sacked.
In fact, the Saints' last play of the half was an interception, as CB Ronde Barber plucked a bobbled ball from Williams' grasp for his second of three picks on the day. The third, in the fourth quarter, which set a team record for interceptions in a game and tied a franchise mark for picks in a season (nine, Cedric Brown, 1981), completed the day's scoring. Barber's first pick, on QB Aaron Brooks' first pass of the afternoon, set up FB Mike Alstott's one-yard touchdown run and a 14-0 lead just five minutes into the game.
All of that added up to a 30-0 halftime lead, making it the third most prolific half in Buccaneer history, trailing 31-point first halves against Minnesota last year and Chicago in 1996. However, the Vikings and Bears also scored in those previous contests, so the Bucs' 30-0 lead over the Saints on Sunday was their largest halftime edge ever. Tampa Bay's 17 first-quarter points contrasted sharply with the 16 first-quarter points the team had managed through the season's first 13 games.
"We made plays early in the game and took advantage of it," said Dungy. "The first half was about as well as we can play."
But more than anything, the game was keyed by the sudden revival of the Bucs' running game, which picked up 157 yards behind the unstoppable will of fullback Mike Alstott. Alstott picked up 101 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, enjoying a much better initial push from the Bucs' offensive line than the team had seen in months. It was his sixth career 100-yard game and Tampa Bay is now 32-7 all-time when he finds the end zone.
Of course, not every Alstott run began with a perfect hole. On several occasions, Alstott used his patented second and third-effort style to pick up extra yardage and delight the crowd. Most notably, on a 15-yard carry that set up a second-quarter field goal, the big back started right but met resistance, cut back left, danced around one tackle then proceeded to juke, cut and spin through the remainder of the Saints defense. When the replay was shown on the Raymond James Stadium videoboards, the crowd counted the tacklers Alstott eluded or ran over, gaining volume as the tally hit nine.
Warrick Dunn added 32 rushing yards, plus 46 on five receptions, and showed the same determination to fight through extra tacklers. His 17-yard touchdown catch on a short screen pass required him to push several Saints tacklers into the end zone. Even when the game was salted away, Buc rushers continued to fight for extra yards, as evidenced by Alstott's 12-yard run on third-and-12 in the fourth quarter, with half of the Saints defense hanging off him.
In turn, the success of the running game unlocked the Bucs' playbook in a way not seen all season. Play-action fakes were used to set up an end-around to WR Reidel Anthony, several successful swing passes to FB Jameel Cook and even a fade pass to TE Dave Moore for a touchdown.
QB Brad Johnson played off the running game to complete 16 of 31 passes for 207 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, tying his season high for scoring throws. A passer rating of 105.2 was made possible by outstanding offensive line protection, which allowed no sacks to a Saints team that had a league-high 49 entering the weekend.
In contrast, the Bucs sacked Brooks three times, two by DE Simeon Rice, who now has a team-high 10 sacks. Rice has nine QB takedowns in the Bucs' last seven games.
Perhaps the Bucs scored too often. After Moore's fourth-quarter touchdown reception, K Martin Gramatica suffered a hamstring strain on his kicking leg while converting the extra point. S John Lynch had to handle the resulting kickoff and Gramatica did not play the rest of the way. The severity of his injury was not known by the end of the game.
Before suffering the injury, Gramatica converted on four field goals and four extra points for a total of 16 points scored, setting a new team record for single-game points by a Buc kicker. Since he couldn't return to the game, the Bucs used S John Lynch on two kickoffs and went for a two-point conversion after their last touchdown on Barber's interception, with backup QB Shaun King running it in for the score.
The Bucs now have a one-game edge over New Orleans (7-7) in the Wild Card race, though it is actually more like a two-game lead, since today's victory gives Tampa Bay the edge in case of a tie between the two teams. Both teams came into the game with a purpose, knowing the importance of the outcome, but the Saints might have been at a disadvantage after playing just six days ago on Monday Night Football.
"The guys handled the situation well," said Dungy. "We practiced well and it showed today. New Orleans probably had a little bit of a Monday Night hangover."
During the contest, Buccaneers.com provided quarter-by-quarter reports on the action, complete with details of all the game's big plays. Those reports follow to give a closer look at the Bucs' most complete victory in quite some time.
First Quarter Report