Bucs a game up on Saints for wild-card spot


TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Warren Sapp thinks the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
are peaking at the right time.

The Bucs (8-6) took a big step toward making the playoffs for
the fourth time in five seasons Sunday, routing New Orleans 48-21
for a one-game lead over the Saints (7-7) in the race for an NFC
wild-card spot.

"We're in the driver's seat now," Sapp said. "We've got to
crank the car up and mash the gas."

Brad Johnson threw three touchdown passes and Martin Gramatica
kicked four field goals before being leaving with an injury as
Tampa Bay rebounded from a 24-point road loss to Chicago with a
dominating performance.

Mike Alstott rushed for 101 yards and one touchdown, while Ronde
Barber returned one of his three interceptions 36 yards for a TD
with two minutes left.

Is Norman Hand that important to the Saints' defense?
Hand is a key part of the Saints' run-stopping defense, but having him
wouldn't have stopped the Bucs' big kickoff return or prevented Aaron Brooks
from throwing interceptions.

Tampa Bay was just playing at an extremely high level Sunday, and New
Orleans couldn't match that level. Everything went right for the Bucs --
offense, defense, special teams -- and everything went wrong for the Saints.

In a must-win game for both teams, the Saints couldn't match the Bucs'
intensity level.

ESPN.com's Vinny Cerrato was director of player personnel for the
Redskins and 49ers.


With Gramatica sidelined by a strained right hamstring, the Bucs
finished the blowout with a 2-point conversion to equal the
franchise record for points in a game.

"We've got some big-time players in this room and the bigger
the game, we usually step up our performance," said Sapp, who sat
out most of the fourth quarter with a sore left shoulder. "We had
to have this one, and we got it done against a tough ballclub."

Tampa Bay improved to 12-1 at home in December under coach Tony
Dungy. The Bucs close with home games against Baltimore and
Philadelphia, while the Saints will play their last two at the
Superdome against Washington and San Francisco.

"We have to move on and win our last two games," Saints
receiver Willie Jackson said. "If they stumble again, we'll be
right there."

The loss was the second straight for New Orleans, coming off a
Monday night loss to St. Louis that dropped the Saints back into a
tie for the sixth and final NFC playoff position.

"It's embarrassing, but you have to move on and try to put it
behind you as quickly as possible," Saints defensive end Joe
Johnson said.

Johnson completed 16 of 31 passes for 207 yards and no

Aaron Stecker returned the opening kickoff a Tampa Bay-record 86
yards to set up Johnson's 14-yard TD throw to Karl Williams. Three
plays later, Barber intercepted Aaron Brooks' first pass and Tampa
Bay went up 14-0 on Alstott's 1-yard run.

Johnson also threw touchdown passes of 17 yards to Warrick Dunn
and 4 yards to Dave Moore. Gramatica kicked three of his four field
goals in the first half while the Bucs were building the lead to

Brooks threw TD passes of 11 and 16 yards to Joe Horn and 10
yards to Eddie Williams in the second half, finishing 21-of-38 for
248 yards and four interceptions.

"We were bad all around ... fell behind and never had a
chance," said Saints coach Jim Haslett.

"We knew all week we were going to have to gang tackle. We did
the opposite. We let them fall forward, and instead of it being
second-and-9, it was second-and-5, second-and-4. You can't play
defense if you can't tackle."

The Bucs outgained New Orleans 269-34 while limiting the Saints
to just one first down in the opening half. Alstott did much of the
damage, averaging nearly 5 yards a carry as Tampa Bay amassed 104
on the ground before the break.

The Saints led the NFL with 49 sacks, including 21 in their
previous three games. However, a Tampa Bay offensive line that's
had trouble protecting Johnson -- as well as opening holes for the
running game -- did a good job of keeping the quarterback on his
feet and clearing the path for Alstott.

Johnson wasn't sacked, and the Saints didn't force any

"I think it's a big confidence booster for our O line, because
they heard all week long that here comes these four hunters that
were going to kill 'em and drive 'em back, that we we're not going
to be able to run the ball, that we ain't going to be able to do
nothing," Sapp said. "I've always said, just let us get in the
playoffs. If we get there, I like our chances of doing well."

Gramatica grabbed the back of his right leg after his extra
point gave the Bucs a 40-14 lead with 9:03 remaining. He was
replaced on the ensuing kickoff by safety John Lynch.

Gramatica's brother, Bill, a rookie kicker with Arizona,
suffered a season-ending knee injury celebrating a field goal
against the Giants last week.

Game notes
The Saints played without defensive tackle Norman Hand,
who sat out with a right foot sprain. ... The Bucs held Ricky
Williams to 26 yards rushing on 10 carries ... Keyshawn Johnson,
who started the day with a NFL-leading 100 receptions, had two
catches for 41 yards for Tampa Bay.


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