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Bucs are banged up but not crippled

By ERNEST HOOPER, RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 17, 2000


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TAMPA -- NFL players swear the intensity for a playoff game is higher than for regular-season games, and if injuries are any indication, they're right.

After enduring one of their most physical games of the season in a 14-13 divisional playoff victory Saturday over Washington, the Bucs added seven names to the injury report.

At the top of the list is linebacker Al Singleton, out for the season after breaking a bone in his left ankle. Coach Tony Dungy said the team will discuss what to do with Singleton's roster spot today. If he is put on injured reserve, the Bucs would have three spots open.

But Singleton's absence might not create a pressing need. Although he is a special teams standout and a backup to strong-side linebacker Shelton Quarles, former starter Jeff Gooch also can back up Quarles. Safety Dexter Jackson, who was inactive Saturday, could be added to the active roster to bolster coverage teams.

Singleton and defensive end John McLaughlin were hurt on the same special teams play, with McLaughlin breaking a bone in his left hand. But Dungy said McLaughlin probably will be outfitted with a special cast that will allow him to play.

Defensive tackle Warren Sapp (right knee strain) and cornerback Donnie Abraham (right knee sprain) also were hurt. Dungy said the three will not practice early in the week but should be able to go through drills later.

Safety Damien Robinson (left hip flexor strain), cornerback Ronde Barber (left knee laceration) and running back Warrick Dunn (left ankle sprain) should practice.

In addition to those injuries, receiver Reidel Anthony (quadriceps) still is doubtful after getting hurt in practice last week.

ANOTHER TEST: It didn't take safety John Lynch long Sunday to realize the Rams will pose a big challenge for him and his teammates. St. Louis scored on its first offensive play with a 77-yard strike from Kurt Warner to Isaac Bruce.

"They were pretty impressive," Lynch said after the Rams' 49-37 victory over Minnesota. "I really hadn't had a chance to see the Rams play this year, and it was unbelievable how they spread the ball around on offense.

"It's going to be a tough challenge, but I think we'll be ready to step up to the challenge like we have all year."

Although the Rams are favored by 131/2 and the Bucs are only 4-4 on the road, Lynch said his team is far better than it was at the beginning of the season.

"We're playing with tremendous confidence right now," he said. "We're one win away from playing in the biggest game of the year, the one you dream of playing in. We've worked so hard. I think this is a special team, but it's going to take a special effort to win."

SLOW GO: The Bucs' inconsistent play on offense has become so commonplace, the players are becoming accustomed to closely contested games. But guard Frank Middleton said the tight games can be taxing.

"Everybody thinks I'm going bald and that's why I keep it low, but it's the gray hair," Middleton said of his closely cropped hairstyle. "I'm 25 and every week I get a different gray hair. This season is the best ever, but it's also been the scariest.

"We're 13 down to a great team like Washington. You've got to wonder how long we're going to keep doing that to ourselves. I mean, we've got people 68 year olds watching, and we're going to give somebody a heart attack."

THE SURVIVOR: Dungy was the third choice of Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer after attempts to hire Jimmy Johnson and Steve Spurrier failed. Johnson went on to the Miami Dolphins, but after four seasons it's Dungy's team playing for a conference championship while Johnson is retiring from coaching. "It's satisfying to be here, not from that standpoint, but just the fact Mr. Glazer and Rich McKay having confidence in me and giving me the job," Dungy said. "To be able to deliver something to them, I feel very good about that and I feel very good about what our team has done, our staff has done. We still think we have a long way to go. We think we're going to continue to get better."

LIKE RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY: Dungy said it was telling that the Bucs face the Rams in the NFC Championship 20 years after those teams faced off in the same game.

"It just shows the way the league has gone," he said. "I think the Rams have been down for a while, we've been down for a while. But we both have young teams and some exciting players and I think it's great -- great for the league and great for us."

As a cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers in '79, Dungy faced the Bucs and Rams that season, and he said he expected the title game to be a defensive battle. The Rams won 9-0 at Tampa Stadium.

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