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The Bucs were bickering. They had just blown a game to the Chicago Bears, a team they had pummelled 41-0 two months earlier. Their three-game winning streak was over. Their playoff hopes were on a slippery slope. The locker room hadn't splintered, but everyone seemed to be wielding an ax.

Tampa Bay, no longer the NFL's longstanding joke, was becoming its biggest choke.

That was when Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch _ the backbone of the Bucs defense _ gang tackled the problem and maybe saved their season.

As he does so often on the field, Sapp got it started.

Always one to speak his mind, Sapp criticized the poor offensive play under new coordinator Les Steckel.

The attack might have been a bit unfair and Sapp broke a code of silence by airing laundry in this newspaper, but it forced the Bucs to address the division among players.

"Sometimes as the "leader' of a ballclub, you have to step out sometimes," Sapp said. "I wish I'd done it a little earlier. Maybe we'd be sitting home with a bye (in the playoffs)."

Lynch, who had dislocated his left shoulder against the Bears and wasn't expected to play for at least two weeks, used a meeting at the team hotel before a game against Buffalo to play peacemaker.

"Warren doing that was just symbolic of how people were in this locker room," Lynch said. "You could tell it wasn't healthy for the team. You could see the makings of a bad situation.

"First I said to myself, "How can I sit back and not say anything?' I'll be kicking myself for the rest of my career. I said I've got to do it. It was a little weird because I didn't know if I would be playing. But I talked about believing in what we do because it's been successful. Believing in the players around you. What it means to be a pro and all those things. I think our team has responded."

Brooks, who is a tornado on the field, doesn't waste much wind in the locker room. But he made the rounds and preached togetherness.

Then Sapp, Brooks and Lynch each went onto the field against the Bills and did something extraordinary.

Sapp sacked quarterback Rob Johnson twice and pressured him into throwing the ball away early. Because of his injury, Lynch's mere presence was totally unexpected and inspirational.

"If you're going to challenge them at a time when the team needed you so bad, then you've got to do it," Lynch said. "You've got to be out there."

Finally, Brooks provided a career performance, recording a team-record 22 tackles, including a sack.

The result was a stirring 31-17 win over the Bills, the first of four straight victories that earned a spot in today's NFC wild-card playoff against the Eagles.

"I'm not playing up to my ability if I don't get it started," Sapp said. "Tony (Dungy) has always put an emphasis on the defensive front. And if it starts up front, then it damn well starts with me. I've always felt that way and I'm going to come out and play like it. If I start the fire, Brooks and Lynch and these guys have no problem pouring gas on it."

Think about it. If you are a ballcarrier for an opposing team, you have to negotiate a minefield in Tampa Bay's defense. First you encounter Sapp, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year who set a club mark for sacks with 16.5. The next player to the ball is Brooks, a punishing tackler who averages 180 tackles a season and forced five fumbles. Then you are bound to hear the whistle of the heat being brought by Lynch.

"Warren, John and Derrick especially, in each of their segments of the game, became more important when Hardy (Nickerson) wasn't there," Dungy said. "I think all three of those guys felt that way and played accordingly."

It might not be overstating things to say Sapp is the most important personality on the team. During the off-season, he was challenged by defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, who put together a film of all the near-sacks Sapp had in '99. Dungy sent him a letter showing Sapp he was 12th in sacks among active players.

"I wanted to climb that list because I didn't want that list coming back to my house in another year saying I'd only climbed three spaces or something like that," Sapp said. "That's how you challenge the better players and that's what he did.

"As I go, so go the Bucs? I'll take that responsibility. I'll come out and play. Like (defensive backs coach) Herman Edwards says, "You've got to autograph your performance. If you don't, how are you going to lead somebody?' Nobody is going to follow you."

Early in training camp, Brooks went to coaches and pleaded with them to let him call the defensive signals. Not only did Brooks want the responsibility, but he was better suited for it than third-year pro Jamie Duncan.

"He's had to do more in the leadership role," Dungy said. "He's had to do more in terms of being vocal than he ever has. I don't think he's needed to make any more plays, but just in terms of being one of the veteran guys, he's had to step up and he has."

Lynch is simply a warrior, born right out of the Ronnie Lott mode. He hits like he's holding a manhole cover. And an awkward collision at Chicago dislocated the shoulder, but he returned the next week wearing a harness.

The tough guy approach was instilled on Lynch by his father, a youth league coach who rarely allowed his sons to come off the field.

"There's stories. My younger brother, the poor guy, is the one who got the brunt of it," Lynch said. "There were times when he was playing Pop Warner. One time his stomach was hurting for a couple weeks. Two weeks later, he's on the field, my dad's coaching and I'm there and at this point his appendix burst and he was rushed to the hospital. Another time, his foot's hurting and we found out he played on a broken foot for four weeks.

"(Dad) was tough. My brother had chicken pox and we were on the same Little League team and my dad was coaching. We were going for the championship that year. Sure enough, I wake up Saturday and I'm pitching that day and I've got a couple spots. My dad said, "Whatever you do, do not let your mother see those.' Sure enough, I pitched the game and by the fourth inning I'm scratching like crazy. I pitched, and we won. He just kind of instilled that in you."

Lynch aggravated his shoulder injury at Miami. Brooks also will try to play hurt today at Philadelphia, after injuring his right shoulder last week at Green Bay. Of the three, only Sapp has remained healthy.

"You can't say enough about those guys," Lynch said. "Six years ago when they came here, you could see the potential, and it didn't take long for them to tap it. First of all, they're just unbelievable talents. On top of that, they work hard. In my mind, it's not even a choice. They're the top guys at their position.

"As for me, I've been having so much fun playing football, first of all. And I'm been looking so forward to these playoffs. I think we have a great opportunity, and I like our chances a lot."


BORN: 4/18/73.

HEIGHT: 6-0.

WEIGHT: 235.

NFL EXPERIENCE: sixth season.

COLLEGE: Florida State.

ACQUIRED: First-round pick (28th overall), 1995.

2000 SEASON: 146 tackles (123 solo, 23 assists), 1 sack, 6 fumbles forced, 1 interception, 6 passes defended.


BORN: 9/25/71.

HEIGHT: 6-2.

WEIGHT: 220.

NFL EXPERIENCE: eighth season.

COLLEGE: Stanford.

ACQUIRED: third-round pick, 1993.

2000 SEASON: 85 tackles (56 solo, 29 assists), 1 sack, 2 fumbles recovered, 3 interceptions, 8 passes defended.


Born: 12/19/72.

HEIGHT: 6-2.

WEIGHT: 303.

NFL EXPERIENCE: sixth season.


ACQUIRED: first-round pick (12th overall), 1995.

2000 SEASON: 52 tackles (43 solo, 9 assists), 16.5 sacks (team record), 1 fumble forced, 1 fumbles recovered, 4 passes defended.