TAMPA, Fla. -- Derrick Brooks gladly would trade the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award for a Super Bowl ring.
''That's what you play the game for,'' Tampa Bay's six-time Pro Bowl linebacker said, looking ahead to Sunday's playoff game between the Buccaneers (12-4) and the San Francisco 49ers (11-6).
The Bucs set a franchise record for victories, shared the NFL's best record and had the league's best defense during the regular season. Ultimately, though, the NFC South champions know they will be judged on how well they do in the playoffs.
''I pride myself on being one of the cornerstones of this franchise, changing it from one of the worst to one of the best, and the only way we can signify being a great defense is to get a ring,'' Brooks said.
''You're not going to hear people talk about the Eagles' defenses of the early '90s, with Jerome Brown and Seth Joyner. No. They didn't win a championship. I want to be remembered like the '86 Bears and the 2000 Ravens. They won championships.''
By earning a first-round bye Tampa Bay already has advanced further than it did the past two seasons. A victory over the 49ers would put the Bucs in the NFC championship game for the first time since 1999, when they lost to the St. Louis Rams.
''That seems like an eternity,'' defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. ''I'll put it this way: Three backup quarterbacks have won a Super Bowl since then. That's how crazy this league has gotten since we played that game.''
An inability to get past the first round in 2000 and 2001 cost coach Tony Dungy his job. Jon Gruden replaced the most successful coach in Tampa Bay history, installed a new offense and has made a good team better. The Bucs allowed a league-low 196 points, becoming just the seventh team to hold opponents to fewer than 200 in a 16-game schedule. The offense started slowly, but made significant strides before quarterback Brad Johnson missed the last two games because of a severe lower back bruise.
Johnson will return against the NFC West champion 49ers, who rallied from a 24-point deficit to beat the New York Giants 39-38 in a wild-card game last week.
Johnson ''had a great week. These last couple weeks we've really benefited, honestly, from the bye to get him re-acclimated to the speed and the feel of the offense. He's been very sharp,'' Gruden said.
''The last six games he played prior to the injury, we were averaging 26 or 27 points per game, and we were making some yards and moving the ball. But the 49ers are different. They present a lot of challenges, not only on offense, but defensively. This is a very good defensive club.''
Jeff Garcia threw for 331 yards and rushed for 60 in San Francisco's win over the Giants. Although Tampa Bay has done a good job of containing mobile quarterbacks like Michael Vick, Aaron Brooks and Donovan McNabb, Garcia presents a different challenge because of an ability to locate receivers when he's on the move.
And the target often is Terrell Owens, who had nine catches for 177 yards and two touchdowns last week.
Garcia never has faced Tampa Bay and its superb D. A number of teams have tried to copy the Bucs' two-deep zone defense, but no one has the personnel to play it as well as Sapp, Brooks and Co.
The Bucs had five defenders selected first- or second-team All-Pro and led the NFL with 31 interceptions.
''It's not so much how they play as individuals, but how they play as a team. They are very solid defensively. They know their roles, they know their schemes, they don't make mistakes, they get after teams with their speed and smarts,'' Garcia said.
''But I'm not going to change my style of play, or go into this game with a mind-set of trying to avoid running the football, to not do the things I feel I do well. It's one of those games where if you don't put it all out there, you're not going to move on, so we need to put it all out there.''
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