Not only did the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeat the San Francisco 49ers Sunday, 35-3, they also escaped Raymond James Stadium with only a few minor injuries.

The most significant injury was sustained by cornerback Mario Edwards, who has strained cartilage in his ribs and will be questionable for Sunday’s game in Carolina.

The good news for the Bucs is second-year CB Torrie Cox, who was already fighting for playing time at the nickel corner position, did a nice job in Edwards’ place Sunday and even picked off 49ers quarterback Tim Rattay and returned the ball 55 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

“That’s true,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said when asked if Cox would make for a good replacement for Edwards. “Torrie had a real serious season-ending injury in Miami in the last preseason. It’s really a credit to him and (trainer)Todd Toriscelli, who’s been a busy men here rehabbing these players, to come back as fast as he did and as well as he did. The guy makes plays on our practice field, he makes plays in the kicking game, and he’s going to make more plays. He’s a good football player and he’ll see more playing time because of that.”

Cox, a 2003 sixth-round draft pick out of Pittsburgh, is also making an impact on special teams, where’s he’s averaging 26.7 yards per return as Tampa Bay’s primary kickoff returner.

Bucs center Sean Mahan, who started his second game in place of John Wade (dislocated knee), suffered a left shoulder stinger. Although he’ll likely be limited in practice, Mahan will probably be listed as probable when the Bucs release their official injury report on Wednesday.

So, with Wade out, who will play if Mahan can’t go for whatever reason?

“I’ll play,” Gruden said jokingly. “(Left guard Matt) Stinchcomb can play center. He’s taking some practice snaps there obviously in case there is an injury. We expect Sean to play. He’s listed as probable. He did a good job yesterday. He’s an athletic guy. Bryant Young, I don’t care what anybody says, he’s still one of the premier inside players in football.”

PLAYOFF RACE:
The Buccaneers gained some significant ground in the NFC playoff race by downing the 49ers Sunday.

The Minnesota Vikings (6-4), New York Giants (5-5) and St. Louis Rams (5-5) are leading the race for the two available NFC Wild Card spots.

Four other teams — Arizona, Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans — have identical records as 4-6 Tampa Bay. The Bucs have defeated the Bears and Saints in head-to-head matchups and will play the Cardinals in their regular season finale in Tempe on Jan. 2.

Although the Bucs, who trail the first place Atlanta Falcons by four games with just six left to play, are essentially competing with at least seven teams for two Wild Card spots, but head coach Jon Gruden said his team needs to focus on one team — the 3-7 Carolina Panthers, who swept the Bucs last season and are next on the Pewter Pirates’ schedule.

“I don’t really think we’re competing with anybody else but ourselves,” Gruden said. “We’ve just got to win some games. The more you concentrate on the standings, the more you look at other teams and their schedules and how they’re going to do, the more complex it gets. We just have to take care of business. If we can win a game on Sunday and get to 5-6, we can stay alive and do well in this race.

“You have to have a goal to get in the playoffs. If you can’t get in the Super Bowl tournament, you don’t have a chance to win it. But again, we just try to concentrate on our team. We had a terrible start, four straight losses. It’s a credit to our coaches, our fans and our players for putting ourselves in position to make a last second run at this, but there are no guarantees. We have to play great on Sunday because Carolina is still a good football team. The film illustrates that. They have had some injuries, but (defensive ends) Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker, I still see a lot of the same familiar faces running around on their field.”

Only two of Tampa Bay’s final six opponents have winning records, but Gruden said his team will have to avoid injuries and the same mistakes that cost them some wins earlier in the season in order to make a realistic run at the playoffs.

“I am more concerned with the future of the football team,” said Gruden. “I am very optimistic we can go on a roll based on how hard we play. The six losses that we have had, you could take a play or two out. It is not like we have been beaten by 30 points or been blown out of the stadium. These guys have fought their butt off. We have been in a position to win a lot of these games. If we can complement each other, offense, defense, special teams, we feel like we could be a darn good football team. But championship teams don’t turn the ball over and don’t commit penalties. They make their kicks and generally stay injury free.”

BUCS HOPING PHILLIPS CAN RETURN:
Don’t count out Tampa Bay safety Jermaine Phillips just yet.

Phillips, who underwent surgery to repair a fractured forearm he re-injured in the game against Kansas City, could return at some point this season. In the meantime, S John Howell will likely start and play in his place.

“No, we won’t put him on injured reserve,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of Phillips. “We’ll keep our fingers crossed and see how the injury goes here in the next week to ten days. He had surgery. I believe there is a chance he could come back after a period of weeks. And if there is a chance we’ll hold the right to keep him on our roster.”

QUOTE OF THE DAY:
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden on the fight in Friday night’s Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons game:

“I was blown away by that. I consider that horrific. I think it is horrific what happened from the fans standpoint and from the players standpoint. I just think that is no way to act. It’s a damn basketball game; it’s a football game. We just have to remember that sometimes. That’s a shame. That’s tragic.

“That was a terrible scene. It’s going to be one that’s hard to overcome. It’s going to be one that tarnishes some players for a long time and rightfully so. I think it is going to change the way we look at security and the way we tolerate certain things on and off the court.”

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