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Defeat muddles playoff plans

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 2002

TAMPA -- After being hammered 17-7 by the Steelers, the Bucs face a cold reality.

Even if the Bucs knock off the Bears on Sunday night in Champaign, Ill., Tampa Bay's playoff itinerary likely includes a stop in one of two places where it has been unable to win lately.

If the Bucs win Sunday and win in the opening round of the playoffs at home, they may face a trip to either Lambeau Field in Green Bay or Veteran's Stadium in Philadelphia.

"It doesn't matter," defensive end Simeon Rice said. "If we want to win, we have to do it, or we're paper champions. Plus, if you want it bad enough, you can take the world tour to the Antarctic, the North Pole, the South Pole, Iceland."

This is what the Bucs knew going into Monday night's nationally televised game against the Steelers: A win would have brought them closer to the No. 2 overall seed in the NFC and would have kept alive the remote chance of the top seed.

Now the Bucs are still division winners and in the playoffs, but things are muddled. A win would have made the Bucs 12-3, tied with the Eagles and the Packers, holding the tiebreaker over the Packers with a game left.

An Eagles loss to the Giants on Saturday and a Bucs win against the Bears on Sunday would have assured the Bucs of homefield.

"We're still not dead yet," tight end Ken Dilger said. "If Green Bay loses, we jump back into the No. 2 position. (Monday's) win would have been a big one and give us a chance to control our destiny. At some point, you have to realize that we may have to go north."

Said linebacker Shelton Quarles: "If we have to go north, then we have to go north. That's what we have to do regardless of what happens. The weather is not going to change. Mother nature is going to be who she is regardless."

While the Bucs managed nothing productive on offense and their defense was shredded by the Steelers, particularly in the first half, a once clear playoff picture began to get foggy, and snowy. The challenge going into the final weekend of the season and points there after suddenly seems more daunting, as do the obstacles.

Start with Philadelphia.

The Eagles (12-3) travel to New York for a Saturday afternoon game. The Eagles, who knocked off the Bucs 20-10 this season, control their own destiny. A win gives them the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. But as dominant as the Eagles have been this season, the game is not a lock. The Giants (9-6) can make the playoffs with a win over the Eagles.

Now, the Packers.

Also with a record of 12-3, the Packers travel to New York, with the Jets still seeking the AFC East Division title. A Green Bay win over the Jets guarantees the Packers either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NFC, depending on what happens with the Eagles. The Bucs would have to travel to Green Bay or Philadelphia if they win their opening-round game.

A Packers loss to the Jets, however, will open the door for the Bucs to grab the No. 2 seed, get a bye in the first round and host the second-round game. Either way, the road to the Super Bowl likely will go through Philadelphia, which has beaten the Bucs four in a row.

Then come the others.

The 49ers (10-5) have clinched the NFC West and will host one of two opening-round games. The Giants, Falcons (9-5-1) and Saints (9-6) all remain alive but have to win their final games.

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