Thursday, January 5, 2006

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were up against it. They had followed a surprising 4-0 start with losses in three of their next four games. With four of their next five on the road, they trailed the visiting Washington Redskins by a touchdown with just 1:52 to play.

Three passes, 54 yards, 47 seconds and a touchdown and controversial two-point conversion later, the Bucs had a confidence-building 36-35 victory. Tampa Bay has gone 5-2 since, losing only to fellow division champions Chicago and New England. Back in the playoffs for the first time since winning Super Bowl XXXVII in January 2003, the Bucs (11-5) play host to the Washington Redskins (10-6) in a first-round game Saturday.

“We came into [the first Washington] game having two solid losses under our belts, and we kinda turned it around,” said defensive end Simeon Rice, who had two sacks against the Redskins to start a stretch of nine in the final eight games. “We needed to do that. We were playing with our backs to the wall, and it was time for us to fight.”

Third-year quarterback Chris Simms, who had four interceptions and two touchdown passes in his previous two games, threw three touchdowns without being picked off that day against a solid Redskins defense. He has five touchdowns and just three interceptions since even though veteran Joey Galloway (83 catches, 1,287 yards, 10 touchdowns) is the only Bucs player with more than 41 catches, 367 yards or two scores.

“Chris grows up a little bit more every week,” Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said.

Washington helped that maturation process by not sacking Simms once in 29 dropbacks. He has gone down 27 times in his other nine starts this season.

“As a defense, we’ve got to make them earn what they get a lot harder than what we did the last time,” Redskins assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said.

After going 12-20 the past two years as the offense continued to struggle, coach Jon Gruden finally has a core to build around with six starters — led by running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, the NFL offensive rookie of the year — who are 25 or younger.

“We had a great run [five playoff berths in six years] and had great success a couple of seasons ago,” Gruden said. “Obviously, we had to rebuild our team. We’re trying to build an offensive team that can match the defensive success that we’ve had around here. We do have some building blocks in place, and for that we’re excited.”

Although mainstays Warren Sapp and John Lynch are gone, there’s still plenty to get excited about on Tampa Bay’s defense, which has six starters from its championship season and finished first in the NFL this season.

Rice was third in the league with 14 sacks. Outside linebacker Derrick Brooks and cornerback Barber were picked for the Pro Bowl again. Middle linebacker Shelton Quarles had the second-most tackles in team history. Former Minnesota tackle Chris Hovan was integral to the run defense soaring from 19th in 2004 to sixth this year.

“There’s a lot of speed on their team,” Redskins H-back Mike Sellers said. “It just makes it hard to block.”

Rice was impressed that the Redskins scored 28 points on the Bucs (not counting Ladell Betts’ kickoff return for a touchdown) the last time.

“We’re a team that will stay after you,” Rice said. “We’re very disciplined — a simple defense but very physical. You have to tip your hat to what the staff is doing and what the players are able to achieve year in and year out around here.”

The defense has ranked in the top six in all but one of the last nine years but until 2005 was No.1 only during the 2002 Super Bowl season. But Rice said it’s too soon to rate this defense with that one.

“We’ve played extremely well,” Rice said. “We finished number one overall. That’s a testament to what we’re about. When you finish the Super Bowl, you can say [the defenses compare], but up until [then], we’re on the verge of something special here.”

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