Tampa Bay’s thrilling 20-10 win over division rival Carolina was the talk of the town Monday. But while Bucs fans continued celebrating the huge win, head coach Jon Gruden and his 9-4 team, which is in first place in the NFC South division, spent the day preparing for the next challenge ahead of them – the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.

The Patriots have won three of the past four Super Bowls. Ironically, the only other team to hoist the Lombardi Trophy over the past four seasons was the Buccaneers, who won Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002.

“It’s an interesting side bar to this game,” Gruden said. “The last two teams to win the Super Bowl are Tampa Bay and New England. They have done a better job than we have of keeping continuity. They have had successful drafts that have brought about good players. They lost some key coaches, but they have shown they can overcome that, too. They have a brand new stadium. They have a lot to be excited about, so do we. We are getting a new facility next year. They are telling me all the beams are going up, so there are a lot of similarities.”

Although some consider their 8-5 record a bit disappointing, the Patriots have shown few signs of letting up as the playoffs approach. Despite suffering a rash of injuries, New England has won four of its last five contests, including an impressive 35-7 win in Buffalo on Sunday.

Defeating the Patriots in Fooborough will be a tall order for the Bucs. New England had won 21 straight games at home before losing to the San Diego Chargers in Week 4, 41-17. Five weeks later, the undefeated Indianapolis Colts downed the hometown Patriots in convincing fashion, 40-21. While those two losses show that New England is mortal at home, the Patriots have still won 24 of their last 26 home games, which could make for a cold and intimidating environment for the visiting Buccaneers.

However, Tampa Bay hasn’t exactly been a pushover on the road. In fact, the Bucs have won five of their seven road games this season, including their last two contests vs. New Orleans and Carolina, respectively.

A win in New England on Saturday would give Tampa Bay six road wins this season, which would tie the franchise record set by the ’02 Bucs. More importantly, it would take the Bucs one step closer to securing a playoff spot and winning the NFC South division title.

“Well, so far we have done pretty good,” Gruden said of Tampa Bay’s ability to win on the road. “And once again, we are going to be very shallow, and short-term oriented. We’re going to have to play great to win this game. We know that. It’s a short week, and we are going to get to work here as soon as possible.”

Saturday’s game in New England will be nationally televised, which has been a rare occurrence for Tampa Bay this season. The Bucs are coming off two straight losing seasons, which prompted the networks to give them less playing time in front of a nationally televised audience.

Even with its huge win over Carolina, Tampa Bay hasn’t received a ton of national recognition. The lack of attention and respect hasn’t come as too much of a surprise to Gruden. In fact, he and the Bucs have been feeding off of it all season long.

“Oh, I don’t know. I think we’ll hear that again this week,” Gruden said when asked why Tampa Bay hadn’t received much national respect. “We kind of like that. In some ways we do kind of thrive off of it. We were perceived to be a team that’s rebuilding. Our fight song coming into the season was that we cut 40 million dollars off of our cap. That was on the cover of all of our brochures. That was our fight song. I don’t think a lot of people expected us, with five or six, really rookie players on offense. A new kicker no one knew anything about, to play at the level they have been. We’ve been fairly pleased with where we are now. And respect where we have to go from here.”

While many pundits had written Tampa Bay off before the 2005 regular season even began, Gruden isn’t too surprised that the Bucs, who had compiled a 12-20 in the two seasons following Super Bowl XXXVII, have the second-best record in the NFC and are sitting in first place in the NFC South division with just three games to go.

“It’s exciting,” Gruden said of Tampa Bay controlling its own destiny. “It certainly makes it more fun to come to work. We will get what we deserve. I’m just happy that we’ve had some success this year, because there have been a lot of people that have paid a great price to get nine wins, and we will have to pay a great price to get one more win. I think our team respects that and understands that.”

Cadillac Approaches 1,000-Yard Rushing Mark
Before its game vs. Carolina on Sunday, Tampa Bay had failed to rushed for 100 yards or more in seven straight games vs. the Panthers. However, that dreadful streak was snapped on Sunday when Bucs rookie running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams rushed for 112 yards on 29 carries (3.9 avg.) and two touchdowns en route to his team’s 20-10 win over the Panthers.

Despite missing two games and being hindered through a few others due to a lingering hamstring/foot injury, Williams, who has rushed for 924 yards on 223 carries (4.1 avg.) and five touchdowns, is just 76 yards away from reaching the 1,000-yard rushing mark on the season.

“I think it’s three factors really,” Gruden said of Williams’ recent success. “Talent, number one. He’s really talented. Number two, we’ve given him the ball a lot. We’ve given him 20 looks or, plus 20 looks a game. He’s had opportunities to get yards. And we are blocking pretty good. We are blocking good up front. Those are the three things that I would attribute it to.”

With three games remaining in the regular season, Williams appears to be poised to become the first Bucs running back to rush for over 1,000 yards since Warrick Dunn rushed for 1,133 yards (4.6 avg.) and eight touchdowns back in 2000.

Hilliard Establishing Himself In Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay’s leading receiver, Joey Galloway (67 catches for 1,114 yards and eight touchdowns), ranks tied for fourth in the NFC with 21 catches for 410 yards and three touchdowns on third downs this season. But another Bucs receiver, Ike Hilliard, was quarterback Chris Simms’ go-to guy vs. the Panthers on Sunday when the Bucs converted 10-of-17 (59 percent) of their third downs.

Hilliard caught a team-leading five passes for 32 yards vs. Carolina, and three of those grabs converted third downs into first downs for the Bucs.

The former New York Giant is proving to be a valuable free agent acquisition for the Bucs this season. He’s hauled in 27 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown through 13 games. His reception total is just two catches behind Tampa Bay’s second-leading receiver, Michael Clayton, who has 29 catches for 335 yards and no touchdowns this season.

“He’s really not the third (receiver on this team), he’s often times the first,” Gruden said of Hilliard. “He’s a guy that deserves to play more. He’s a great team man. I can’t say enough about what he’s brought to our team. He makes play after play on third down. He’s unselfish. He practices hard. He deserves to play more. He’s a talented guy and he’s a winner. He’s a precise route runner, very disciplined, and easy to read for the quarterback. He’s really been a plus for us. Hopefully, we can lock him up for years to come.”

Bucs Thrive When Scoring First
The Buccaneers are a tough team to beat when they score first. That sentiment is tough to dispute seeing as the Gruden-led Bucs have compiled an impressive 24-4 record when they score first since his arrival in 2002. The Bucs are an impressive 7-1 this season when denting the scoreboard first, with their only loss coming to the New York Jets. <> Needless to say, the Bucs like their chances of winning games when they score first.

“We’ve presented various statistics of importance for our team,” Gruden said. “Turnover ratio is one of them. Scoring first is another. There’s some pretty impressive statistics about if you score first, you’ve got a chance to win the game. Some of these are much higher. So, we try to start better, start faster, and start by scoring. And getting the lead. I don’t know if that was the determining factor yesterday. I heard their fans turn on them pretty quick in the ball game.”

Quote Of The Day
Gruden on preparing the Bucs to play the Patriots in cold conditions in New England

“We’ve shaken the hex of not being able to win in sub-freezing temperatures. So we’ll just try to do the best we can. We have a great equipment man back there, Tim Sain. He’s going to fit us with the warmest gear possible. And that ought to be an afterthought. We’re 9-4 playing the defending two-time world champions. You’ve ought to play naked if you have to.”

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