Thank the Bears!

Somewhere on Mt. Olympus, Zeus Lombardi temporarily put down the lightning bolt and uttered, “Whew, I thought I would have to smite the whole damned lot of them. At least, they showed up!”

If Jon Gruden and his band of Argonauts are to save the ship from being gutted this offseason, they will look back at Sunday’s performance, a 34-31 overtime loss to the Big Bad Bears, as a moment of significance.

Facing the firing squad, Gruden can say, “How about Da’ Bears?!”

Yes, it was a loss, another in a long list of losses.

But, in some ways, was it something else? Didn’t the Bucs actually compete? Didn’t they look somewhere inside their pewter hearts and find something to make the game enjoyable in the fourth quarter, and beyond?

Sure, it came with another desperate quarterback change. But, in some ways, wasn’t it the right quarterback change? Didn’t Gruden’s decision to go with Mr. Clipboard actually make sense and, for a while, actually work?

Forgive me, but this is how pathetic things are for the 2006 Bucs. It’s perfectly plausible to find a bright light after the 11th defeat of the season. Don’t think they’re doing that in Oakland, or Cleveland, or Houston.

Go easy here, backup now turned starting quarterback Tim Rattay’s play was nothing spectacular. In the same way, the overall effort of the receivers, offensive line and running backs was nothing but exactly what is expected of them.

But, the fact remains that the production was everything but routine.

Consider this, 2006 has been a season of routine blunders, routine humiliations and routine reasons for a season ticket holder to drop his asking prices on E-Bay.

Sunday’s win isn’t about some false hope that suddenly, comprehensively, Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen will pull through this season and find the Holy Grail in the coming months.

No, Sunday’s win is proof that no matter how pathetic your club is, no matter how disastrous your season is turning out to be, the line between winning and losing is membrane thin.

A fumble here.

A slant there.

A Mike Alstott run anywhere.

And, God forbid, you have a chance to win.

With two games left, the Windy City Epiphany should serve one purpose. It should remind fans, and the oft-beaten Bucs, that hope isn’t for those on the top but for those scrambling at the bottom.

Sure, playing in Cleveland on Christmas Eve is no holiday, another loss is probably in the makes. Taking on the Seahawks on New Year’s Eve is no way to finish 2006, either.

But at least the Bucs can acknowledge that late in 2006, late in a shameful season worthy or firings, releases and some a few well-placed woodshed whippings, a proud group of men refused to be vanquished.

That counts for something.

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