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“During the first half of the 2005 season, Bucs right tackle Kenyatta Walker, who will be a free agent in 2006, made himself a lot of money by playing some of the most inspired football of his career. However, in the last couple of games, Walker’s play has regressed and he’s drawn a slew of penalties. One of the reasons for Walker’s downward turn is likely knee and ankle injuries that have bothered him for a while. Nevertheless, Walker’s sub-par play as of late will cost him some big bucks in free agency. He won’t have a problem getting paid due to his Super Bowl ring, improved play and the fact that the Bucs had a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver this year, but he won’t command top dollar.”

“New Orleans tight end Zach Hilton was a thorn in Tampa Bay’s side today. I remember scouting this guy when he was at North Carolina a couple of years ago and I thought he was going to be a good player in the NFL. At 6-foot-8, 268 pounds, he’s got great size to go along with deceptive speed. He had four catches for 50 yards in the first Bucs-Saints game, and had five catches for 74 yards today after posting a career-high seven catches for 83 yards against Detroit last week. His 29-yard catch today helped set up New Orleans’ first field goal. On the year, Hilton has 35 catches for 396 yards and one touchdown. I have a feeling he’ll be a match-up problem for the Bucs for years to come.”

“On a radio appearance on 970 AM earlier this week, I was asked if the Bucs would blow out the lowly New Orleans Saints, who entered Sunday’s game with a 3-12 record. I said, ‘No way!’ and the host was surprised. First of all, New Orleans plays Tampa Bay very closely every time they meet. Secondly, the Bucs haven’t blown anybody out this year. Their biggest margin of victory this season has been 16 points against Buffalo (19-3). Their second biggest margin of victory in 2005 was a 14-point win over Miami (27-13). Needless to say, this was a four-point game and a seven-point game throughout much of the contest until Dewayne White’s touchdown sealed the deal and pushed the final difference to 14 points. The fact that the Bucs have played in so many close games and won most of them will likely pay off dividends in the playoffs, which rarely feature blowouts.”

“Mark Jones is an electrifying punt returner who has delivered a big run back in each of the last four games. At Carolina, he embarked on a 31-yard return and would have scored if one of the three blockers in his convoy would have peeled off and nailed the punter. Against New England, Jones had a 15-yard return, but also had an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown called back due to a penalty. Against Atlanta, Jones had a key 28-yard punt return with just a minute remaining in overtime to help set up Tampa Bay’s game-winning field goal. Against New Orleans today, Jones delivered a 22-yard return. He has turned into a real weapon for the Bucs on special teams.”

“Tampa Bay defensive end Dewayne White was everywhere today. White only made five tackles on the day, but it seemed like he made about a dozen. He was all over the field and came up with a huge play in the game’s waning minutes for a second-straight week when he sacked Todd Bouman, forced a fumble, recovered that fumble and returned it 34 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. After the game, Jon Gruden said that White is a real promising player whose best years are in front of him. I’d have to agree with him. White may not be drunk with athleticism like Simeon Rice is, but he has a motor that rivals or even surpasses Rice’s. It will be awfully hard to keep White out of the starting lineup next year.”

“The Bucs defense will have to play better than it did in the first three quarters of the Saints game. New Orleans kept this game close until the final minutes and seemed to move the ball at will throughout most of the game, racking up 306 yards of offense. Although New Orleans only scored 13 points, they lost two possessions inside Tampa Bay territory when they went for it on fourth down. Aside from better play from the defense, the Bucs will have to keep their penalties in check as they head into the playoffs. Tampa Bay finished the 2005 season with a franchise-record 131 penalties for 1,085, which is the second-highest penalty yardage in team history. Sean Mahan was guilty of two holding calls that erased a 21-yard run by Cadillac Williams and a 44-yard touchdown pass to Joey Galloway in the fourth quarter. As the Bucs play some of the elite NFC teams in the playoffs, they can’t afford to beat themselves. Despite an 11-5 record, the Bucs aren’t good enough to commit 10 penalties for 107 yards – as they did today – and still prevail.”

“After completing 5-of-7 passes on the opening series of the game, Bucs quarterback Chris Simms and the offense flamed out in the middle of the second quarter and never rebounded until midway through the fourth quarter. Simms completed just seven more passes and went 7-of-18 (38.8 percent) from the second series on. However, in what is becoming typical Simms fashion, the third-year quarterback came up with some clutch throws when the Bucs desperately needed them when he connected with wide receiver Joey Galloway for a 20-yard gain on third-and-11 and with tight end Alex Smith for a 22-yard gain on the same drive in the fourth quarter. Both of those passes put the Bucs in field goal range, where kicker Matt Bryant drilled a 26-yard field goal to cap off a 10-play, 66-yard scoring drive. While he struggled from an accuracy standpoint on Sunday, Simms made enough plays, including his two touchdown throws to Galloway, to lead the Bucs to their biggest victory in three seasons.”

“I’ve been critical of Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice in the past for not walking the walk after talking the talk, but he deserves credit after coming up with two big sacks vs. the Saints on Sunday. Rice’s first sack came on a third-down play in the third quarter, which forced a punt. He saved his best for last by chasing down Saints quarterback Todd Bouman on a fourth-and-3 play and sacking him on the Saints’ 46-yard line with just 4:15 remaining in the game. Rice finished the season with a team-leading 14 sacks, and it was nice to see him rise to the occasion in some critical down-and-distance situations. The Bucs need him to continue that trend in the playoffs.”

“With the NFC South division title on the line Sunday, it was disappointing to see the Bucs make some key mistakes vs. the Saints, especially in the penalty department, where the Bucs were penalized 10 times for 107 yards. Tampa Bay broke its single-season franchise record of 117 penalties (set in 2003) by being penalized a whopping 131 times for 1,085 yards in 2005. That’s an average of 8.1 penalties per game, and to put the penalty yardage in perspective, rookie running back Cadillac Williams had 1,178 rushing yards this season, which is just 93 yards more than the team’s total penalty yardage. With the exception of Sunday’s game, the Bucs had done a nice job of avoiding penalties in recent weeks. They’ll be hard pressed to win a playoff game if they commit the type and amount of penalties they did on Sunday.”

“Before Sunday’s football games took place. I really didn’t want to see Tampa Bay face Washington in the first round of the playoffs. However, after watching the Redskins struggle to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, one can’t help but feel a little better about how the Bucs matchup with the ‘Skins. Although they won the game, the Redskins left Sunday’s game in Philly pretty banged up. That could bode well for the upcoming playoff game scheduled for Saturday, which means both teams have just six days to prepare.”

“The NFL schedule-makers were cruel to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs’ 2006 regular season opponents have been determined, and let’s just say that their schedule on paper looks brutal. Tampa Bay will face opponents with a combined record this season of 116-91. Seven of Tampa Bay’s 13 opponents (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New York Giants, Washington, Chicago, Carolina and Seattle) secured a playoff berth this season, and six of those teams (Seattle, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New York Giants, Chicago and Carolina) produced at least an 11-5 record. Only four of the Bucs’ ’06 opponents (Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New Orleans) had losing seasons in 2005. Good luck next season, Tampa Bay. It looks like you might need it.”

“Consider this victory a statement to the rest of the league that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are indeed for real and can play with anyone. I know what you are thinking, they only beat the Saints, right? Wrong. The Bucs have gotten a series of monkeys off of their backs this season with strong play and grit. The New Orleans victory is a perfect example of this. New Orleans has owned Tampa Bay in the past, especially at Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers had not defeated the Saints at home since the 2001 season. Take into account that the Carolina Panthers had won six straight games against Tampa Bay dating back to the 2003 season. The Bucs exercised that demon by taking out Carolina at home, a game that essentially won the NFC South division title for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay posted a 6-1 mark against division opponents, their best winning percentage against divisional opponents in franchise history en route to an 11-5 record and a home playoff game. There were only two games this season that Tampa Bay lost control of. Those games were against Carolina at home and against the New England Patriots in Foxboro. A few lucky bounces, a converted field goal here and there and the Bucs could have been looking at a 14-2 season. This team has gone 4-1 in its last five games in which they endured a three-game road stint going 2-1 over that stretch. The Buccaneers are clicking at the right time, possibly even more so when they won the Super Bowl. While many will get nostalgic about the 2002 Buccaneers and how they were firing on all cylinders late in the year, consider this: Over the last five games of the 2002 season the Buccaneers went 3-2 dropping two games to Pittsburgh and New Orleans. They ended the season with a 15-0 field goal extravaganza against the Chicago Bears in Champagne, Illinois. Was anyone optimistic about the Buccaneers’ playoff chances in 2002 when their offensive firepower was fueled by the leg of Martin Gramatica? Doubtful. The defense is as stout as it has ever been save its penchant for committing huge penalties: See Brian Kelly. The offense can put points on the board and has proven on more than one occasion that it can come from behind and win games: See Chris Simms. The 2005 Buccaneers have proven nothing yet, but from my point of view they seem to be clicking slightly better than the 2002 squad.”

“Four sacks, two interceptions, one fumble recovery and a defensive touchdown. You can’t ask more from your defense but the Buccaneers will have to rely on them heavily no matter who they face in the playoffs. Tampa Bay is slated for the Saturday time slot, which is laughable and borderline unfair given the constraints of the other NFC playoff teams. The Giants, a team seeded lower than the Buccaneers, will have the luxury of eight days to prepare for the Carolina Panthers because they played on Saturday and are slated to play Carolina this Sunday. Tampa Bay, fresh off its victory over New Orleans, will play the Washington Redskins on only six days rest and one less day of game planning. The last time Tampa Bay worked within a short week it got whitewashed by New England, 28-0. Forget prime time match-ups and network schedules, this just flat out isn’t right. Had the game days been switched, both division champs would have the adequate seven days to prepare for its upcoming opponent. Sometimes the NFL acts prior to any thought process occurring.”

“Many are making the case for Carnell ‘Cadillac’ Williams to be voted as the team’s MVP. I agree that Cadillac has made a strong case for himself and is indeed a lock for NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, but my MVP of the 2005 Tampa Bay Buccaneers is tight end Alex Smith. Any other year, Smith would be lauded with praise. Snagging Smith in the third round has been one of the most valuable and well-made decisions of the Jon Gruden/Bruce Allen era. In the next two years Smith will be a terror for teams to game plan against to the likes of Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. The vertical threat coupled with his growing blocking ability has given the Buccaneers the tight end they have dreamed about. Smith has been on the blocking end of many of Cadillac Williams’ amazing runs, and Smith is No. 1 in the NFC in catches for a rookie. While Smith hasn’t caught a touchdown since Week 1 against Minnesota, his contributions on third down, in the passing game and run blocking have been huge.”

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