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By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 2000
TAMPA -- It's not Ringling Bros. This is Warner & Sapp, not Barnum & Bailey. Even so, based on Tampa Bay's palpitating pro football heartbeat, Monday night's happening is "The Greatest Show on Earth."
Funny to say that, the Bucs-Rams dance not being a Super Bowl, or an NFC Championship Game, or even a playoff game. But the ingredients are boiling over, giving the Raymond James Stadium extravaganza the ultimate in professional sports dynamics.
Passion. Necessity. Hunger. Worldly attention. Dennis Miller's unconventional, if at times inappropriate, analysis. Al Michaels. Dan Fouts. Plus two locker rooms full of extraordinary athletic talents.
On one side, an offensive Hercules from St. Louis, lusting to repeat its XXXIV glory when XXXV comes to Tampa in six weeks. Opposing, a defensive Goliath from Tampa Bay, aching to get even for last season's excruciating loss to the Rams at the Super Bowl altar.
For the winner, there will be a playoffs place. For the loser, the agony of going to next weekend needing a crusty intra-division win on the road. Bucs at Green Bay. Rams at New Orleans.
Maybe even more.
Tampa Bay will face the icy, perhaps snowy Christmas Eve shiver of Lambeau Field. Still needing to prove that Bucs of any generation can succeed even once in frigid weather.
Maybe, in the end, having to pray for help from elsewhere in the NFL, as studs and chads in pro football's electoral process come tumbling to a regular season climax.
They know the feeling, at least the more senior Bucs do, of losing control of their December destiny, then trying to depend on help from some other venue.
Two years ago, underachieving Bucs had an 8-8 record, crushing the Bengals 35-0 at Cincinnati in the 16th game, then needing a San Diego upset at Arizona, which through NFL methodology would allow Tampa Bay to back into the playoffs.
"You expect the worst," coach Tony Dungy said. "We knew the Cardinals were at home. I boarded our flight home from Cincinnati thinking Arizona would win and that we were gone from the post-season picture. But then, we began getting sketchy reports."
Bryan Glazer, son of Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer, had a small, battery-powered TV set. As the team charter flew over Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia, the picture was erratic. Lots of fuzz and buzz. But, now and then, a Chargers-Cards score would be detected, to be immediately reported over the airplane's PA system.
"San Diego took the lead and everybody was screaming," recalled general manager Rich McKay. "It's such pain, not having control yourself. But this was our only remaining chance. Arizona went back ahead, so all you heard was grumbling."
"It was terrible, putting your hopes in somebody else's hands," Pro Bowl safety John Lynch said. "Late in that game, the Chargers kicked a big field goal. Everything was in good shape again. We were smiling. High-fiving.
"But then, (quarterback) Jake Plummer drove the Cardinals in the final seconds. We were shouting for a fumble or interception. That clock wouldn't run out. Eventually, the Cardinals scored and won. We were eliminated. Right there, our airplane went silent. It was like at a funeral."
Tampa Bay's more experienced players won't forget those emotions. Leaving somebody else to do their work, coming close, but then missing out. Source of another segment of their competitive fire for Monday night against the Rams.
"We got off that Cincinnati flight in 1998," Lynch said, "promising ourselves that we would do everything to never put ourselves in such a sling again.
"No, we absolutely do not want to be flying home from Green Bay on Christmas Eve with a lone hope that results of other games will save us.
"It's a bad way to go."
Derrick Brooks frowns at the recollection of 12/27/98. "I'm just happy that it's now in our hands," said the superlative Bucs linebacker. "No, we don't want to end the regular season depending on some other team to finish our work.
"This year, we dug ourselves a big hole early (with a 3-4 record), but we've now climbed out (at 9-5). This game means everything.
"We want to be playoff-bound before even taking off for Green Bay. I know there are Super Bowls, but I'm not sure your enthusiasm can get any higher than this."
Revenge is a term that has bounded about One Buccaneer Place all week as Tampa Bay prepared for another shot at the Rams.
Some players say it's a mighty boost but others downplay the effects of something that happened 11 months ago, when St. Louis scored a late touchdown to beat the Bucs 11-6, leading to the Rams beating Tennessee to rule Super Bowl XXXIV.
"There's no revenge factor, really," said cornerback Donnie Abraham, who has earned his first Pro Bowl trip. "It's got to be about playing our best, being focused, executing in all phases. Revenge sounds like a big deal, but all that will fade as soon as the football is kicked off."
Frank Middleton has a big objection to such thinking. Most things are big when you're a 334-pound guard.
"I've never quit remembering how the Rams celebrated when last year's NFC finals ended," Middleton said. "They were so disrespectful. Arrogant. Disgusting.
"It's fine to show happiness when you're going to the Super Bowl, but they were nasty toward us. I'm still ticked. I can't put into words how much I hate those guys and how I've looked forward to this second chance in our house."
Oh, baby, it's revved.
"We play a lot of games, including plenty of big games," McKay said, "but then there are events. Which is at a higher level.
"This is an event. Being on ABC Monday Night Football. Full, loud house at Raymond James. Having the season riding for both teams, with St. Louis trying to repeat as Super Bowl champion.
"Everybody everywhere is ready."