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The surprise of '05? Get in line, Bucs

The Bears, Bengals and Redskins join Tampa Bay as impressive turnaround teams.

By JOANNE KORTH
Published December 30, 2005


They're selling playoff tickets in Chicago.

And Cincinnati.

And Washington.

And Tampa Bay.

Can you believe it?

Another NFL season has made experts look like idiots by casting some of the league's most down-and-out teams from a year ago into starring roles in the 2005 playoff race. And for every surprise contender, there is a preseason favorite - Philadelphia and San Diego come to mind - making early vacation plans.

"If some of these analysts had won-lost records they'd be fired, too," said Bucs coach Jon Gruden, whose team can make the playoffs this weekend after going 5-11 last season.

"We try not to live and die with what your expectations are or his expectations are. Here's the expectations of all football players: You're going to play your butt off and you'll get what you deserve."

Chicago was written off when quarterback Rex Grossman broke his left ankle in the preseason. But second-year coach Lovie Smith made an impassioned plea to his defense and asked rookie quarterback Kyle Orton to manage the offense. The combination won nine games, including eight straight, before Grossman returned to clinch the NFC North title and a first-round bye with a win Sunday at Green Bay.

Surprise!

"I still don't think we have the respect yet," Bears safety Mike Brown said. "We're the No. 2 seed. No one's even talking about us. But, hey, that's the way it goes. We just have to make some noise in the playoffs and make them talk about us."

In Washington, even the most faithful were starting to think Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs should have stayed retired based on last season's 5-11 effort. But the Redskins won their first three games and everything old, including 13th-year quarterback Mark Brunell, looked young again. A midseason slump dropped them to 5-6, but they have won four straight and can make the playoffs with a win Sunday against the Eagles.

Surprise!

The Bengals, formerly known as the Bungels, are in the playoffs for the first time since 1990, which was also the last time the team had a winning season.

'Nuf said.

The Bucs were 12-20 the past two seasons and lost starting quarterback Brian Griese in Week 6. But a young offense featuring rookie running back Cadillac Williams and strong-armed quarterback Chris Simms has emerged to complement the defense.

The NFC South was supposed to be a battle between Carolina and Atlanta, but Tampa Bay can clinch the division and a home playoff game with a win Sunday against the Saints.

"We said at the beginning of the season we wanted to be NFC South champions, and I don't know how many people outside the locker room really believed that," rookie tight end Alex Smith said. "But once we stepped on that field the first day in training camp, nobody here doubted what we could do."

Several teams who began the season with high expectations have little to look forward to on Sunday besides playing spoiler and finishing on a positive note.

Philadelphia won at least one playoff game the past five seasons, reached the NFC title game the past four and went to the Super Bowl in February. But the Terrell Owens controversy and injuries to key players, including quarterback Donovan McNabb, proved too much to overcome.

After a 4-2 start, Philly has lost seven of nine.

Surprise!

"It's been a nightmare," Eagles defensive end N.D. Kalu said. "You want to keep playing, but part of you is glad it's almost over and you can get back to the drawing board."

Atlanta will miss the playoffs for the first time with quarterback Michael Vick as the seasonlong starter, which came as a shock mostly to Vick. But on the left coast, San Diego is perhaps the most inexplicable playoff omission of the Super Bowl era.

The Chargers ended the Patriots' 21-game home win streak in October and halted the Colts' quest for perfection at 13-0 two weeks ago in Indianapolis. They have everyone's No. 1 fantasy player, running back LaDainian Tomlinson, and are better than most of the playoff-bound teams in the NFC.

Sorry, not good enough.

In the AFC, Jacksonville has clinched one wild card and Pittsburgh can claim the other. Did someone confuse the NFL with the Bowl Championship Series?

"What I take away from this season is a team that's going to come back next year and contend for a Super Bowl," Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer said. "We've got the guys to do it."

Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

HOW THE BUCS CAN MISS THE PLAYOFFS

The NFL says there is only one set of circumstances in which the Bucs can miss the playoffs.

8 p.m. Saturday: Oakland beats the Giants.

1 p.m. Sunday: The Bucs lose to New Orleans and Carolina wins at Atlanta.

4:15 p.m. Sunday: Washington beats Philadelphia.

8:30 p.m. Sunday: Dallas beats St. Louis.

If all those happen, the NFL would need to figure out the strength of victory tiebreaker to knock out the Bucs, the Giants or the Cowboys (and the Bucs might still get in).