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Tamp Bay Takes Charge On a Sunday of pivotal division matchups, the Bucs made the biggest statement by battering the Falcons and looking ripe for a postseason run

Three hours before the biggest game of his 11th NFL season, Tampa
Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson sat at his locker and
studied the contents of an oversized briefcase. Over and over, as
is his custom, Johnson rummaged through the black case, making
sure every cleat, rib pad, sweatband and towel was in its place.
After 20 minutes of preparing what he calls the Kit, Johnson
handed it to a Bucs equipment assistant, whose responsibilities
include indulging the compulsions of Tampa Bay's most important
offensive player.

Before and during games such as Sunday's NFC South showdown against
the Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium, Johnson pays more attention to clothes than a Saks Fifth Avenue security guard trailing Winona Ryder. The 34-year-old quarterback changes his socks and shoes after every quarter and spends halftime replacing everything but his uniform pants. "I know it's sick, but I like everything to be fresh,"
Johnson explained after a 34--10 romp over the Falcons, a victory
that kept Tampa Bay (10--3) atop the division and in the race for
home field advantage in the NFC playoffs. "I sweat a lot, and I
like that clean feeling. It's strange, but at least I know what
my problem is."

Give Johnson dry gear and some pass protection, and he becomes a
big problem for the other team. On Sunday the NFL's most
overlooked passer shredded the Atlanta defense by completing 23
of 31 passes for 276 yards and four touchdowns. Most improbably,
he overshadowed the Falcons' acrobatic second-year quarterback,
Michael Vick. While Vick is doing his best to revolutionize his
position, Johnson can happily set the game back 30 years when he
plays the way he did against Atlanta.

After a week of hype in which Vick was compared with everyone
from Gale Sayers to Michael Jordan, it was Johnson who controlled
the air traffic. "You're finding more athletic quarterbacks who
can make special plays, but just because I stand in the pocket
doesn't mean I'm not athletic," the 6'5", 226-pound Johnson said
after the game. "People are saying that pocket passers are on the
way out, but I saw Tom Brady win the Super Bowl last year and
Trent Dilfer and Kurt Warner before him. There are different ways
to win, and it takes a total team."

If Sunday's game proved anything, it's that the Bucs are a more
complete team than the Falcons. Atlanta (8-41) came in unbeaten
in its last eight games, a streak that was launched after a 20--6
home defeat to Tampa Bay in early October. Vick, who had been
neutralized in that meeting before being knocked out with a
shoulder injury, promised that the rematch would be his biggest
game of the season, and his teammates spoke of making a
leaguewide statement. But from the third snap on Sunday--when
Vick took off up the middle and was slammed to the ground by
All-Pro linebacker Derrick Brooks after only a one-yard gain--it
was obvious that the revolution was on hold. "I've never run up
against a team like that," Vick said afterward. "There was
nothing I could do."

One week after he had thrown for 173 yards and run for 173,
including a thrilling 46-yard dash that gave Atlanta an overtime
victory against the Minnesota Vikings, Vick had 15 rushing yards
on five carries against Tampa Bay. His passing numbers (12 of 25
for 125 yards) included his fourth interception of the season, a
second-quarter miscue that helped stake the Bucs to a 14--0 lead.
Said Tampa Bay's All-Pro cornerback, Ronde Barber, whose coverage
on wideout Brian Finneran led to the interception by teammate
Dexter Jackson, "What we put on the field is intimidating. You
see it firsthand--again--and you realized we're not the Minnesota
Vikings. We've been a good team for a long time. The difference
this year is the number of guys who are into it on both sides of
the ball."

Could it be that in this NFL season of surprises the team poised
to make the strongest playoff push is the league's perennial
postseason patsy? As always, Tampa Bay has a punishing defense
(the league leader in fewest points allowed per game, 12.2, and
fewest yards, 246.7) and a usually underwhelming offense. Says
first-year Bucs coach and noted offensive guru Jon Gruden, "We're
just getting started here." But on Sunday, with fullback Mike
Alstott (13 carries, 95 yards) jump-starting a wheezing ground
attack and No. 3 wideout Joe Jurevicius playing like a poor man's
Plaxico Burress, the offense looked downright prolific.

Tied with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers for
the league's best record, the Bucs (who lost to the Eagles in
October, beat the Packers last month and would be the NFC's No. 2
seed if the playoffs started now) believe that spending the first
few weeks of January at home in Florida is the key to reaching
Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego. "If we get home field advantage
throughout the playoffs," says wideout Keyshawn Johnson, "you can
go ahead and make our reservations for San Diego because nobody's
beating us."

You won't hear such daring words from Brad Johnson, who saves his
bravado for game day. His teammates call him the Bull, and they
wince during Monday morning film sessions when they see the
repeated beatings he often takes. "The guy is as tough as anybody
I've seen in football," Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney said
last Thursday. "He knows he's about to get a potshot, and he
doesn't take his eyes off his receiver. He gets killed back there
and doesn't care." Johnson didn't flinch when that comment was
relayed to him. "That's the way I'm going to play," he said. "I
don't think about it; I just take the shot and move on."

Last Saturday, while bemoaning his team's running attack (31st in
the league going into the Atlanta game), Gruden said, "If we
could run the ball better, we wouldn't throw it as much. We're
sensitive about how many hits Brad takes. I don't know if you've
noticed, but we're having a pretty damn hard time protecting
him." Johnson, however, emerged from Sunday's game relatively

Even with the shortcomings of the Bucs' offense, and despite
observations from people around the league about his lack of arm
strength, Johnson has put together a Pro Bowl--worthy season. His
94.5 passer rating is the highest among full-time starters in the
NFC, and over the past five games he has a 15-to-1
touchdown-to-interception ratio. Johnson's 22 TD passes have
already eclipsed Dilfer's team record. Most important, Sunday's
victory pushed Johnson's career record as a starter to 50--28;
his .641 career winning percentage is second only to the Packers'
Brett Favre among active quarterbacks with at least 50 starts.
That's especially impressive for a guy who was a ninth-round
draft pick, in 1992 (by the Vikings). "Brad's the type of guy you
want in your huddle," Bucs wideout Karl Williams says. "He's
everything a leader should be."

Granted, your typical leader doesn't require a designated
assistant to keep the Kit near him at all times. Says Johnson,
"We have new equipment guys this year, and I told them in March,
'This is what I'm going to need.' It took them till the fourth
week of the season to understand what I want. I've always been
into changing jerseys, and my routine has been the same for the
last six or seven years. It's all about feeling fresh off the
field too. I shower in the morning, after practice and before I
go to bed, and I change my clothes at home all the time."

Paging Dr. Melfi. Paging Dr. Melfi.

Johnson has other idiosyncrasies, including an aversion to
ketchup. "My wife doesn't like it, either, which was a
prerequisite for living with me," Johnson says. "We don't have it
in the house. Come over for a barbecue, and you'd better bring
your own."

The quarterback's more recent idiosyncrasy seems to be an
aversion to Keyshawn Johnson. On Sunday, B. Johnson skewered the
Falcons' secondary without much help from K. Johnson (two
catches, 25 yards), and that, predictably, was a sore point with
the marquee receiver. "I don't know what's going on," Keyshawn
said. "I don't understand it. Maybe I'm not as good as I thought
I was."

Instead, the receiving stars were Jurevicius, a rangy fifth-year
player who caught 51 passes last season for the New York Giants,
and Keenan McCardell, the former Jacksonville Jaguars standout
who was one of Gruden's first free-agent pickups. Each player had
a pair of touchdown catches. Jurevicius (eight receptions, 100
yards) celebrated his first score, a 10-yarder that put Tampa Bay
ahead 7--0 with 11:12 left in the first half, by doing a mocking
version of the Dirty Bird dance that the 1998 Falcons made famous
during their Super Bowl drive. Later, Jurevicius punctuated a
reception with an exaggerated first-down signal. After another
catch he spun the ball in cornerback Ray Buchanan's face,
triggering a ball-tossing reprisal from the veteran corner that
drew a personal foul on Buchanan.

"I joke with Joe all the time and tell him, 'You ain't no white
boy,'" Keyshawn Johnson said afterward. "He's real quiet off the
field, but once the game begins he helps energize our offense."
Says the 6'5", 230-pound Jurevicius, "My job is to get people
excited and give us an edge. Our defense creates so much energy
from our fans, and I'm trying to do my part for the offense."

He might not generate much buzz, but Brad Johnson provides much
of the Bucs' offensive energy. At one point during Sunday's game,
while he and Keyshawn were standing on the sideline, Keyshawn
told him, "You might be like Rich Gannon and have six or seven
good years left." It's an interesting comparison, given that
Gannon, Gruden's former quarterback in Oakland, has emerged from
being a journeyman to a leading MVP candidate at 36.

Johnson's teammates don't doubt it could happen. Said Jurevicius
as he left Raymond James Stadium, "There are a bunch of naysayers
who constantly talk about the things Brad Johnson can't do, and
it's fun watching him make them look goofy."

You wonder if he can keep doing it right through Super Sunday,
and the answer seems obvious: No sweat.

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER [T of C] PRONE FOOTBALL The Falcons' Michael Vick will be back on his feet against Seattle on Sunday (page 72).

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER STUFFED The Bucs' defense was typically stingy, but it was the offense that proved unusually potent against Atlanta.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO THROWBACK Johnson wasn't flashy, but the retro-quarterback tossed four touchdown passes.

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER BUSY HANDS Jurevicius, who caught eight passes for 100 yards, beat Buchanan for the second of his two scores.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS IRON MIKE Alstott gave Tampa Bay's long-stalled ground game a needed jolt, running for 95 punishing yards.

"I've never run up against a team like that," said Vick. "There
was nothing I could do."

"The guy is as tough as anybody," Kerney says of Johnson. "He
gets killed back there and doesn't care."

"If we get home field advantage throughout the playoffs," says
Keyshawn, "you can make our reservations for San Diego."