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Mirror images brace for collision

After similar moves to improve, the Bucs and Redskins find themselves in an inevitable spot: facing each other.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 1, 2000


LANDOVER, Md. -- Every Bucs move to add punch to their offense this off-season was met with a counterpunch by the Redskins.

Tampa Bay traded for receiver Keyshawn Johnson. The Redskins signed cornerback Deion Sanders, who might be Past-His-Prime-Time and has lost a step, but can talk as fast as Johnson.

The Bucs convinced guard Randall McDaniel to take a detour on his way to the Hall of Fame. The Redskins delayed the retirement of Bills sackmaster Bruce Smith.

For every signing of center Jeff Christy, there was the drafting of linebacker LaVar Arrington.

It was tit for tat. This for that. Both teams wanted fresh ideas and hired new coordinators. Les Steckel is running the offense for the Bucs. Ray Rhodes directs the defense for the Redskins.

Since the Bucs' 14-13 comeback win against Washington in an NFC Divisional playoff game in January, NFL pundits knew these teams would collide again.

"If you're a player or a fan of football, you couldn't help but pay attention," Bucs safety John Lynch said.

"They brought in such great players. When you bring in a Deion Sanders, a Bruce Smith and see what they did in the draft with Arrington, you recognized that they're making themselves better talent-wise. How that was all going to fit in, chemistry and the whole deal, I think that was everybody's big question and what they're sorting through as a team right now."

Today's game at FedEx Field not only renews a budding rivalry between the Bucs and Redskins, but the outcome could be critical to both teams' eventual playoff chances.

The first tiebreaker for home-field advantage in the post-season is head-to-head results.

The home team has won the past two meetings in the series in similar fashion. Tampa Bay fumbled a kickoff to set up the go-ahead TD for the Redskins in a regular-season game at FedEx Field in 1998. 'Skins quarterback Brad Johnson was intercepted by Lynch and lost a fumble when he was sacked by Steve White to set up the Bucs' two TDs in the playoff game at Raymond James Stadium.

"I think it's a good rivalry. I think it has been," Redskins coach Norv Turner said.

"I think when you get ready to play in this game, you better be prepared to play a four-quarter game. You better not turn the football over."

Credit the Bucs and Redskins for not remaining on a treadmill. After Tampa Bay failed to score a touchdown in the NFC Championship and came within four minutes of advancing to Super Bowl XXXIV, they sought more balance on an offense that ranked 28th in the NFL.

The Redskins sought to improve a defense that ranked near the bottom of the league for much of '99.

"I'm sure they didn't look at it like "We've got to get these guys to beat Tampa Bay,' and we certainly didn't say "We've got to get Keyshawn Johnson to beat Washington,' " Bucs coach Tony Dungy said.

"I think each team looked at how they can improve and what they could do to improve and we think we improved ourselves and I'm sure they feel the same way. They added a Pro Bowl defensive end, a safety (Mark Carrier) who has been in the Pro Bowl, the second pick in the draft at outside linebacker who's going to be an impact player, they signed a Pro Bowl corner. So they definitely improved themselves on defense and we think we improved ourselves on offense. So it should be another good match."

Of course, with each acquisition expectations for the Bucs and Redskins skyrocketed and both became favorites to contend with the St. Louis Rams for the NFC title.

But Washington stumbled out of the gate, losing back-to-back games at Detroit and at home on Monday Night Football to Dallas before evening their record to 2-2 with a 16-6 victory against the Giants.

Tampa Bay (3-1) is trying to rebound from a stunning loss at RJS last week to the Jets in which it blew an 11-point lead in the final two minutes. Like the Bucs experienced last week with Johnson, every Redskins defeat invites more scrutiny about the off-season changes.

"The week after that game, you're going to answer a lot of questions about chemistry, high-priced guys in the locker room and how that ties together," ESPN reporter Solomon Wilcots said.

"'Now you turn around a couple of weeks later and beat the Giants and play well ... then you don't answer those questions for that week."

If the Bucs have an advantage on the Redskins, it's defense. Counting the playoff game and the preseason opener, Washington has not scored an offensive touchdown in the past two games against the Bucs.

"With all the off-season acquisitions of both teams, that would be the thing, that we were headed for a collision course with the way we built the offense they build the defense," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "You have to pay attention to that. But it really didn't play a part in my thinking because it's still the same offense. You can do all you want on defense, I don't take that into account. But if you can't score, you can't win."

"Of course, the Rams have got a pretty good unit and they're already intact. They have the greatest offense since sliced bread. I think we're both chasing them."

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