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Bucs get the help they need

With the Falcons' loss, Tampa Bay clinches a wild-card slot to reach its third postseason in a row. But is it enough for coach Tony Dungy to keep his job?

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 31, 2001

TAMPA -- The Bucs will ring in the new year with new hope in the playoffs. But it might not be enough to make a happy return next season for coach Tony Dungy.

Tampa Bay (9-6) clinched a playoff berth for the fourth time in the past five seasons under Dungy, earning the NFC's sixth seed Sunday when Miami defeated Atlanta 21-14.

The Bucs will be on the road for the entire playoffs, beginning with their wild-card game Jan. 12 or 13 at Philadelphia.

The Eagles clinched the NFC East and the third seed by beating the Giants 24-21 Sunday on David Akers 35-yard field goal with seven seconds left.

That means Sunday night's Bucs-Eagles game at Raymond James Stadium will have no bearing on the postseason for either team.

A victory, however, would give Dungy his third straight 10-win season, and the Dolphins and Rams are the only other teams to reach the past three postseasons.

But will it be enough for owner Malcolm Glazer to allow the team's winningest coach to return for the final season of his contract?

"That's not something we've talked about," Dungy said. "That's not something we've dwelled on. Mr. Glazer knows the answer to that and it's just not something that we talk about. I'm sure we'll talk at the end of the year, and that's where it is."

But Dungy had no trouble listing the accomplishments of his regime after learning the Bucs had clinched a playoff spot.

"I think that's one of the reasons the guys will really want to get this 10th win," he said. "Because we've done that a few years in a row now and that's kind of a benchmark. ... Five years, to make the playoffs four times when we didn't make it for 18 years, I think that says a lot about the guys, not only the coaching staff that's here and the front office, but the players we've had. We've had a few guys who've been in on all four of those and they've been great leaders for us over those five years. That does, it makes you feel good."

What's not so good for the Bucs is that they will have to make history to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XXXVI.

Since the playoff format was expanded in 1990, a No. 6 seed never has reached the conference championship game.

In fact, sixth-seeded teams have gone 5-5 in NFC wild-card games and 1-9 in the first round of the AFC playoffs. Only the '85 New England Patriots have won three road games to reach a Super Bowl.

Not only that, the Bucs have never won a playoff game on the road, to say nothing of their 0-20 record in games played in temperatures under 40 degrees. And it was only last season that the Bucs opened the playoffs with a 21-3 loss to Philadelphia at Veterans Stadium. Tampa Bay hasn't scored a touchdown in its past two road playoff games.

"You're going to be in tough places," Dungy said. "No matter what, you know you're going to be on the road three times to get where you want to go. That's difficult, but it's got to be by someone. It's got to be done by someone. I don't think it's been done before.

"Philadelphia we know is a tough place to play. We went there last year and didn't get the job done. But we've gone to ... St. Louis, we've got into those places. I think if we're playing our best ball, we'll feel very good about our chances. Obviously, it's not the ideal way to go with three road games. But I think it depends on how you're playing and how healthy you are more so than where you have to play."

Entering Week 16, road teams had won nearly 46 percent of regular-season games, a percentage that's believed to be the highest since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.

"When you look at the scores today, people playing at home that need the game to secure a playoff spot or need the game to secure homefield advantage are not having an easy time," Dungy said. "This may be the year that it's not a curse to be on the road."

Dungy said the Bucs will use the regular-season finale to rest any injured or tired starters. Dungy has virtually ruled out playing placekicker Martin Gramatica (hamstring).

"I think it'll help us in terms of guys that are a little bit banged up. We won't feel the urge to practice them," Dungy said. "We won't have to play guys that aren't 100 percent. So in that sense, it will be good for us.

"We know we're going to play Philadelphia again; we're not going to do everything that we might do in the playoff game. It will be a different type of game strategically for us and for them ... neither team has a lot to gain by showing what they can do. But I think both teams will play the game to win but not do everything that you might think you want to do in the playoffs."

Dungy likened the scenario against the Eagles to the way his team manages a preseason game.

"Well, I guess it's the same thing in the preseason. Why would you play any of your guys? You play to get in the habit of doing things right, getting the momentum to get that good feeling and to keep guys sharp."

And despite the long odds of reaching the Super Bowl, the Bucs feel good about their position.

"Right now the only thing out of our reach is winning the NFC Central," Dungy said. "We can still do some damage in the playoffs, we can still get to the Super Bowl. So we feel much better than about 20 other teams."

Said defensive tackle Warren Sapp, "Expected. Four playoff appearances in six seasons under Tony Dungy I sum it up to one word: expected."

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