By ROGER MILLS, ERNEST HOOPER, RICK STROUD and TIMES WIRES
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 28, 2000
TAMPA -- Buffalo middle linebacker Sam Cowart, a former standout at Florida State, sustained a high ankle sprain in the second quarter of Sunday's game in Tampa.
Now, Bills coach Wade Phillips is pointing a finger at Bucs guard Frank Middleton.
Phillips accused Middleton, who has developed a reputation for being a dirty player, of intentionally going after Cowart. Cowart entered leading the NFL with 174 tackles and had six tackles and 2 1/2 sacks before leaving in the second quarter.
"For you to be beside him and just go after his knee is unethical," Phillips said Monday. "I think it was uncalled for." Bucs coach Tony Dungy said the tackle was not illegal but an unfortunate dose of bad luck. Dungy said after reviewing the tape that Middleton was preparing to cut block Cowart on a blitz. But Cowart, Dungy said, turned his back to pursue quarterback Shaun King and Middleton landed on the back of Cowart.
"You can accept somebody cutting you when they're facing you," Cowart said. "That's part of the game. We're in a violent sport. But when you got your back turned to the guy ... I think there's really no need to cut a guy."
Cowart is out for four weeks, the rest of the regular season.
"After looking at the tape, I don't feel like our guy did anything illegal or not in the framework of our rules," Dungy said. "I'm sure the league will review the play and agree with us."
PLAYOFF PICTURE: The season isn't over after this weekend, but with the final stretch rapidly approaching, the Bucs playoff picture is taking on a specific look ... muddled.
At 7-5, the Bucs are eighth in the NFC; six teams (three division winners and three wild-card teams) make the playoffs. But with a win over the Cowboys Sunday, the Bucs could move up to sixth if the Rams (8-4) and Redskins (7-5) lose to the Panthers and Giants, respectively.
Tampa Bay, which would be 6-4 in the conference, would move ahead of the Rams and Redskins based on a better conference record. With loses Sunday, they would be 5-4 and 5-5 in the NFC, respectively.
Dungy said his team has to focus on beating Dallas and not worry about who will help their cause by losing games.
"I'm sure when the season started, people would rather have played Washington than Philadelphia; you wouldn't have gotten an argument," he said. "But Philadelphia is in first place right now. So, I don't think you can look at who you have to play and say this game is going to be any tougher than any other one."
The Vikings (10-2) comfortably lead the Central, the Eagles (9-4) have a half-game lead in the East and the Saints (8-4) moved ahead of the Rams based on head-to-head. It means the Bucs enter this weekend jockeying with the Rams and the Redskins for the final wild-card spot.
"I think everyone had that idea that we're in a stretch where we really can't afford to lose games," Dungy said. "We're playing at home and you've got to win."
Running back Warrick Dunn said it's natural for the players to look at the standings and see who plays who in the final weeks.
"The standings are there and you can't help but see them," Dunn said. "But, if we don't focus on Dallas and don't win, we won't be helping ourselves and it wouldn't matter who else is winning."
LYNCH UPDATE: All-Pro safety John Lynch helped inspire the Bucs by playing on a shoulder sprain and avoided re-damaging the shoulder.
"John is actually feeling pretty well," Dungy said. "He came through it okay. Really, that's what we were told by the doctor, that blows to the shoulder and things like that, and contact, would not damage it."
The biggest concern was if Lynch, known for ferocious hits, would get his shoulder in an awkward position and pop it out again. He wore a harness.
Also, defensive end Steve White will have the boot removed from his sprained right ankle and could return to practice this week. Kickoff returner Aaron Stecker doesn't have cartilage damage in his right knee but did have swelling and was walking gingerly. Dungy said Stecker likely will be day-to-day.
BUCS BITS: Receiver Keyshawn Johnson missed practice to go to California to handle a family matter. Johnson was given permission by Dungy last week. ... Derrick Brooks was credited with two more tackles after film review and finished with 22. The effort was a career high and tied Brooks with the team record for a game. Hardy Nickerson had 22 against Chicago on Nov.23, 1997. ... Brooks, Lynch, King, Warren Sapp and Martin Gramatica will take part in an NFL-sponsored commercial filming at Raymond James Stadium today. Spike Lee will direct. Others expected to appear include Eddie George, Jevon Kearse, Eric Moulds, Samari Rolle, Tiki Barber, Ron Dayne, Qadry Ismail, Donovan McNabb, La'Roi Glover, Fred Weary and Keith Mitchell. ... The Bucs have begun mailing out playoff ticket vouchers to season-ticket holders in case the team makes the playoffs.