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A wild road ahead

The Bucs are back in the playoff chase, and passing prowess may decide who advances.

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000


Bucs coach Tony Dungy said the playoffs are too far away for his team to start looking down the post-season road.

Intended or not, his statement has a double meaning. Not only are the playoffs two months away, but the Bucs are far from making post-season plans with a 4-4 record. Dungy insists this team just needs to focus on the game at hand, so the Tampa Bay coaches and players should stop reading this.

But the rest of us certainly can peruse the standings, probe the competitors and get a sense of just how close the Bucs are to making back-to-back playoff appearances since the 1981-82 seasons. Once you determine who the primary contenders are, you discover the teams that get the most out of their passing games in the second half of the season are likely to make the playoffs.

No team has been mathematically eliminated, but the NFC standings contain two front-runners, six legitimate contenders, four long-shot candidates and three teams with two wins or fewer.

If you concede that Minnesota and St. Louis are likely division winners and any team that's not at .500 is a long shot, you're left with a daunting game of NFL musical chairs: six competitors for four spots.

The Bucs would be out of the running if the season ended today, but they have a lot in their favor: a great defense, solid special teams and one of the easiest schedules among the designated contenders.

"I tell you right now from talking with coaches around the league, if you throw out the records, the last team anyone wants to play is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers," CNN/SI analyst Trev Alberts said. "It's just a matter of time before Les Steckel and the offensive personnel get on the same page. No questions about the defense. League-wide, that's the best defense plain and simple."

With the Bucs' 41-13 win over Minnesota and their penchant for playing well down the stretch under Dungy, it's difficult to find anyone who doesn't think they won't reach the post-season. Most of the teams in front of the Bucs can be caught.

"I would be surprised if they weren't in the playoffs," Fox analyst Tim Green said. "The thing that is going to keep them alive is their defense. The defense is good enough and explosive enough and fast enough to win any football game.

"For them to take next step and be a team that should beat anyone, they need to continue have the passing game they exhibited against the Vikings. The formula for any championship team is stop the run on defense, have a sound running game and a deep passing game."

The funny thing is none of the six teams in our contender pool has been consistent in the passing game. The Bucs have had their ups and downs behind Shaun King. But the Giants, Eagles, Redskins, Saints and Lions also have been up and down.

The Giants started out with three straight wins thanks to running backs Ron Dayne and Tiki Barber. The team is atop the NFC East, a half-game ahead of Washington. But the only team with a winning record the G-Men have beaten is Philadelphia, twice. The other wins were against Arizona, Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas.

Looking ahead, however, the Giants should continue to benefit from their running tandem and Dayne should be even better as the weather turns bad. Their second-half schedule is not much more challenging than the first half, with only four teams above .500: St. Louis, Detroit, Washington and Pittsburgh.

Quarterback Kerry Collins will have to find a way to hook up with receivers Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard because defenses will continue to key on the running game, especially Detroit, Washington and Pittsburgh.

The Redskins are still the likely choice to win the NFC East. Washington has one win against the Giants and it has a bye this month. The 'Skins have only three home games remaining and road games include St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Dallas, which has won five straight against Washington.

Washington's defense has been everything owner Dan Snyder hoped when he opened the coffers last summer, and Stephen Davis continues to be one of the league's top power backs.

"It's more difficult to throw the football toward the end of the season," ESPN analyst Tom Jackson said. "St. Louis and Minnesota play in domes, so they may be at a slight advantage. But if you play outside and you don't have a commitment to run, you're unlikely be successful."

Jackson's assertion is why many people are counting out the Eagles, who lost Duce Staley to a season-ending injury. Philadelphia has tried to get by with a running back committee and Donovan McNabb has shown he can move the team with his scrambling and improved knowledge of the West Coast offense.

But Philadelphia's problem is at receiver. Green, who covered the Eagles-Giants game Sunday, saw McNabb's receivers drop nine passes.

Detroit is a game ahead of Tampa Bay and split its series with the Bucs, but the Lions have a brutal second-half schedule, especially when you consider the team does not play well outside of the Silverdome. A three-game stretch beginning Nov. 30 has Detroit at Minnesota, at Green Bay and at the Jets. The Lions haven't won in Wisconsin since 1991 and they've won only twice in Minnesota since 1993.

The Saints are likely to be 7-3 when they play host to Oakland in two weeks. New Orleans is a huge surprise but is getting great production from running back Ricky Williams and a sterling effort from the defense. But quarterback Jeff Blake has a rating of just 76.0. Still, he is one of the best deep passers in the game.

"Chris (Berman) and I like to say (Jeff Blake) throws the ball out of the screen, meaning on many occasions he throws the bomb and you don't see the ball for a period of time," Jackson said. "He gives them the opportunity to make plays whether Ricky Williams is successful or not. I think New Orleans is one of the best kept secrets going right now."

At 3-5, Carolina, Dallas and Green Bay cannot be ruled out. Yet the Panthers, Cowboys and Packers have not shown the consistency of a playoff contender. Carolina's offense and defense have been erratic, the Dallas defense has struggled at stopping the run and Green Bay has had trouble on defense and special teams.

The Panthers still have two games remaining against St. Louis, plus home games against Green Bay and New Orleans and road games against Kansas City and Oakland. Only one team on Dallas' remaining schedule is below .500 and Green Bay may find itself at 3-8 in three weeks.

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