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ROUGH START

Two offseasons ago, the fact that Simeon Rice signed a five-year contract that paid $1-million with no signing bonus and gave the Bucs an option to pull out after one year was evidence that there was some doubt as to how he would fit in with the one-gap scheme. Through his first five years in the league, all with the Cardinals, Rice thrived in a two-gap scheme. And through the first 10 games of the season, he had only three sacks. "I keep stressing that was more an introduction of myself to the Bucs," said Rice, a Chicago native who played at the University of Illinois. "You can ask (former Cardinals coach) Dave McGinnis and he'll tell you Simeon is a player he would live and die for. They understood what I was there as a player."

TURNAROUND

The 6-foot-5, 265-pounder, who has 70 career sacks, experienced a turnaround in Cincinnati on Dec. 2. Rice recorded two sacks and never looked back. He recorded six more sacks over the next four games. He had two more sacks in the playoff loss at Philadelphia.

UNMATCHED OUTPUT

Rice has been a machine, and entering today's game he has 15.5 sacks in his past 15 games. He is tied with defensive tackle Warren Sapp for the team lead in sacks with 7.5. "I'm the best in the game. The best. I am. I know that," Rice said. "I always emerge. It's to be expected from my ability. It was never any doubt. What it was in the past (in Arizona) was an inconsistent defense, so things showed up with me because I was the guy. Now, with the players I have with me on this defense, they're stella, great players on this defense. I'm able to show my ability even more."

FUTURE

Rice, 28, said that he is happy with his progress through his first 25 regular-season games with the Bucs, but he is convinced that he will get better and records will fall when he's finished. "I'm not at that point yet. I'm still on the building block of something great," Rice said. "I have great expectations. My expectations far outgrow any thoughts anyone has for me or any plan that anyone sees for himself. The things I see for myself is to be the best ever. For anyone else, you can either ride with me or ride against me. But I'm going to ride. I'm going to hunt."

_ ROGER MILLS

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