Tampa Bay kicker Matt Bryant was hurting in more ways than one after missing a 29-yard field goal with 2:48 remaining in the fourth quarter that would have tied the game that the Bucs went on to lose to the Bears, 13-10.

The sting of that critical miss will likely subside. However, the Bucs are still concerned with the pain that stems from the hamstring strain Bryant suffered on the opening kickoff of Sunday’s game vs. the Bears.

“I can’t say that,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said when asked if Bryant’s hamstring injury affected the 29-yard field goal attempt. “He kicked off prior to that attempt very well. And I was told it didn’t bother him on field goal placements. It bothered him a bit when he kicked off. He does have a right hamstring strain. To some degree, maybe it did. He’s a very good kicker. He’s a great kicker. And obviously that hamstring could have played a role yesterday.”

While Bryant, who has made 15-of-18 (83.3 percent) field goal tries this season, will likely be listed as probable on the official injury report, which will be released on Wednesday, Gruden suggested there was a possibility that the team would bring in a kicker in case Bryant wasn’t healthy enough to go vs. the Saints next Sunday.

“We’ll give Matt some further treatment today,” said Gruden. “We’ll see where he is officially. There’s always that possibility, yes.”

In other injury news, tight ends Anthony Becht (knee) and Alex Smith (shoulder stinger) will likely be probable this week. Safety Will Allen (knee) is questionable for Sunday’s game vs. New Orleans. Linebacker Marquis Cooper’s status for Sunday’s game is unknown after he suffered a chest strain on Sunday.

If the Buccaneers are going to finish the 2005 regular season strong and make a serious push to win the NFC South division title, they’ll have to do a lot of the work away from Raymond James Stadium.

That’s because the Bucs have three straight road games vs. New Orleans, Carolina and New England. On the bright side, Tampa Bay finishes the regular season with two home games vs. Atlanta on Christmas Eve and New Orleans on New Year’s Day.

“We’re very excited about the schedule we do play,” said Gruden. “It’s pretty challenging. We have three straight road games, that’s the way it is. At least we’ll be home for the holidays.”

This will mark the first time that Gruden faces a three-game road trip as a head coach in the National Football League. However, instead of dwelling on what appears to be a difficult road trip, Gruden and the Bucs will stay focused on the task at hand, which is traveling to Baton Rouge to take on the 3-8 Saints.

“I can’t say that I have been a part of that,” Gruden said of a three-game road trip. “So be it man. We’ve got to play the New Orleans Saints. We’ll look down the road when we get down the road. If you look at it like three straight road games, you start [talking] about New England, and Carolina. Pretty much you think about the challenge at hand. We’ve got one game to play, one at a time. And as I said earlier, we’re going to focus our intentions completely on the New Orleans Saints.”

While a three-game road trip presents some challenges, watching the Saints endure a 16-game road schedule split up between San Antonio and Baton Rouge due to the catastrophic damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in August has given the Bucs some perspective.

“I can’t imagine that, honestly,” Gruden said of what the Saints have been through this season. “Your family, your friends, your city completely destroyed right before the season starts. I think you’d tend to forget about football a little bit, wouldn’t you, and put things into perspective? It’s a credit to [head coach] Jim Haslett and these players for moving themselves to San Antonio and to Baton Rouge and on the road every week and the distractions. Where are your kids going to school? Who’s the family doctor now? All these distractions. I can’t imagine that, I really can’t. I think at the end of the day you need to tip your hat to them, because they’re playing hard. They played well last night from what I saw. They took New England to the brink two weeks ago when they were behind 14-0. They have good players, they’re well-coached and they’ve given us problems in the past. I can’t imagine that, and I’m looking forward to competing with these guys again.”

Bucs WR Joey Galloway continues to impress. On Sunday, Galloway hauled in a team-leading seven passes for 138 yards en route to a 13-10 loss to the Bears.

Galloway has caught a team-leading 58 passes for 1,000 yards (17.2 avg.) and seven touchdowns through Tampa Bay’s first 11 games. While he’s pleased with Galloway’s playmaking ability and production, Gruden stressed the need to get other receivers involved in the offense down the stretch.

“Galloway’s a great player,” said Gruden. “He’s a great player. To have 1,000 yards in 11 games…he really got shut out in two games. He didn’t catch a ball against Buffalo or Atlanta, not because we didn’t want to get him the ball. We just didn’t throw it very much. But he’s had a great year. He was great with [Brian] Griese and he’s continuing to have a phenomenal season. We need to get others involved with him. That’s a challenge that we have.”

Another player Gruden has been impressed with is quarterback Chris Simms, who has shown significant improvement since taking over the starting job for the injured Griese back in Week 7.

“Chris is playing good, man, he’s playing good,” Gruden said of Simms, who completed 19-of-30 (63.3 percent) passes for 202 yards vs. the Bears. “After studying the Chicago Bears as hard as we did last week, they’re a stingy bunch. He took some hits. He hung in there. The two drives that he completed in the fourth quarter were very, very positive. He showed toughness, made some great throws down the field and underneath, made a couple key changes. I think he’s getting better, I really do. I was very proud of what he did yesterday.”

Gruden on if it will be a wild finish in the NFC South division with so many intra-division games still to be played

“It will be interesting. It will be a very interesting finish. I think the job Brad Johnson’s done in Minnesota, they’re not finished yet either. I watch our former Buc players – Joe Jurevicius – and I remember the good old times. Yesterday, after seeing the highlights, I was really proud of all the expert coaching that we left these guys with. They’re doing so well. It will be a hell of a finish, okay? We’re obviously disappointed in defeat. We respect Chicago. We also know we can go toe-to-toe with them, and hopefully we get a chance to play them again some time.”

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