Bucs answer skeptics in wins


Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Ronde Barber (20) is greeted by Derrick Brooks (55) and Brian Kelly (25) after making an interception against the New Orleans Saints during the second half in this Dec. 4, 2005 photo, in Baton Rouge, La. Barber couldn't care less that few people viewed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as playoff contenders when the season began. With a victory against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, the Bucs not only will win the NFC South championship, but will host a game in the first round of the playoffs.

AP Photo/Mark Saltz
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Ronde Barber couldn't care less that few people viewed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as playoff contenders when the season began.
"The experts aren't experts unless they get it right at the end of the year," the Pro Bowl cornerback said.
Instead of griping about what some players perceive as a lack of respect, the Bucs (10-5) have answered skeptics by winning and turning what many felt would be a rebuilding year into one of the most successful seasons in franchise history.
It's only the sixth time in 30 seasons they've won 10 or more games, and a victory today against New Orleans would give them their first NFC South title since 2002.
Beating the Saints (3-12) also would ensure Tampa Bay would play its first playoff game at home, where the Bucs are 5-2 this season - their best mark at Raymond James Stadium since winning Super Bowl three years ago.
"It's a big game," coach Jon Gruden said. "It's the last regular-season game and I think everybody realizes what happens if you win and what happens if you lose."
The Saints, meanwhile, are finishing a nomadic season plunged into chaos by Hurricane Katrina, which forced the team to flee to San Antonio and essentially play all 16 games on the road, including a 10-3 "home" loss to Tampa Bay last month in Baton Rouge, La.
Questions linger about where the team will play next season and whether Jim Haslett will return as coach.
"I can't answer that, to be honest with you. I don't know what's going to happen," Haslett said, adding that his future with the team will be determined by general manager Mickey Loomis and owner Tom Benson.
"I just know this. Under the circumstances, going back and forth, running around and playing 16 away games, I'm not really fired up about doing that again. I'd just like to have the opportunity to win games as a football coach. I think the situation that we were put in, or possibly could be put in next year, I don't know if that's an ideal situation for a coach."
Nevertheless, Haslett doesn't fault the effort of his players.
"You can't blame the season on the circumstances. It's unfortunate. It's a natural disaster. It's something you're going to have to live with," the coach said. "I don't think anybody's happy and proud of our record. But I am proud of the way our guys have fought and hung in there."
The Saints have been competitive most weeks, losing five games by a touchdown or less, including twice on field goals as time expired.
Losing seven of the past eight games overall has taken a toll. However, receiver Donte' Stallworth believes the team has enough left for one more solid effort.
New Orleans has won each of the last three seasons in Tampa, and would like to stop the Bucs from winning the NFC South.
"Unfortunately, we've been playing for pride for maybe six weeks," Stallworth said. "Now it's a chance to play spoiler with a rival trying to win the division. If they were in our situation, they wouldn't us to win either."
The Bucs are coming off a 27-24 overtime victory that eliminated defending division champion Atlanta from the playoff race. They have the same record as Carolina, which finishes on the road against the Falcons, but the Bucs own the tiebreaker.
Haslett said he's impressed with the coaching job Gruden has done with the Bucs after Tampa Bay missed the playoffs the past two seasons. Rookie running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who has six 100-yard games and went over 1,000 yards rushing for the season last week, is one of the main reasons for the team's turnaround from last year's 5-11 record.
Chris Simms' growth at quarterback since taking over for the injured Brian Griese, the re-emergence of receiver Joey Galloway, and the knack for finding ways to win close games have been key, too.
The Bucs have won four of six games decided by three points of less after going 2-6 in such games the previous two seasons.
"If there's one thing we know we are, it's battle-tested," Simms said. "We're not intimidated by any situation as far as being down by a touchdown or 10 points. We believe we can get it done no matter what the circumstance."

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