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Bucking a Tampa trend, Bucs brace for big game


When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers returned home at about 2 a.m. Monday after their victory over the New York Giants, coach Tony Dungy had to stop to fill up his gas tank.

"A lot of people were already talking about the Packers game at 2: 15 in the morning," he said. "That's a good sign, I think."

It's a sign of a new phenomenon in the league: Bucmania.

Just two years ago, the Bucs appeared to be headed out of town because they couldn't get financing for a new stadium.

Even quarterback Trent Dilfer assumed they were leaving.

"I thought we were pretty close," he said. "I didn't know the full story, but from everything we heard, it seemed like we were going to move."

Things were so bad for the Bucs that they couldn't find anywhere to go. Baltimore, for example, spurned them for the Cleveland Browns, who had much more history and tradition.

In the past two years, though, everything has changed. The team eventually got the funding for a new stadium and the owners, the Malcolm Glazer family, who failed to get an expansion team in Baltimore, hired Dungy.

Dungy started 0-5 a year ago (as did Joe Gibbs in his first season), but finished 6-10, and now he has the club on the cusp of its first playoff spot since 1982.

The low-key Dungy didn't get too excited when the team started 5-0 or too depressed when it then lost three straight. But even he will admit that the Bucs are playing a big game Sunday.

The Green Bay Packers, looking very much like defending Super Bowl champions, come to town for a pivotal game. With the Packers at 10-3 and the Bucs at 9-4, they're fighting for the division title and a playoff bye.

"It will be a big game," Dungy said. "I've resisted that 'big game' tag all year, but I have said when you get to a point where you win one and you're in [the playoffs], it's a big game. So from that standpoint, it will be playing the Super Bowl champions. It will be a good battle for sure."

Meanwhile, the Bucs, long a laughingstock in the league, are no longer content under Dungy just to make the playoffs.

"I think the biggest thing Coach Dungy does is have very high expectations and he expects you to meet them," Dilfer said.

Dilfer leaves little doubt that the Super Bowl is one of those expectations.

"I wouldn't call us the favorite, but if we get hot in December, we have as good a chance as anybody," he said.

The Bucs, who lost, 21-16, at Green Bay in October, should find out Sunday if they can get hot.

Best in the rest

Broncos at Steelers: This key AFC game matches Terrell Davis and Denver's No. 1 rushing offense against a Pittsburgh rush defense that is No. 2 in the league. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, plans to run Jerome Bettis against a Denver rush defense ranked only 19th. The Steelers, whose pass defense is 22nd, have the challenge of facing John Elway. Coach Bill Cowher is so concerned that he closed practices to reporters because he plans to switch Carnell Lake back from cornerback to safety. Of course, the news leaked out, but it doesn't much matter if Elway knows who's going to be in the secondary. He has thrown against the best over the years.

Giants at Eagles: This will be a duel between two young quarterbacks, Bobby Hoying and Danny Kanell, taken on the third and fourth rounds, respectively, in the 1996 draft. Hoying is 2-0-1 after besting Boomer Esiason in a shootout last week and is a fan favorite in a city quick to glorify athletes and just as quick to tear them down. By contrast, Kanell has struggled in recent games and coach Jim Fassel is talking about going back to Dave Brown if Kanell gets off to a slow start. That means if the Eagles' defense can stymie Kanell for a half, Philadelphia should win the game, because it should have little trouble containing Brown.

Lions at Dolphins: ESPN got a good Sunday night matchup -- Barry Sanders' legs vs. Dan Marino's arm -- with a lot on the line. Miami is in a three-way tie for the AFC East lead at 8-5 lead, while Detroit, at 7-6, is still alive in the NFC wild-card race. Sanders, finally showing what he can do with a good coach designing an offense for him, has a shot at 2,000 yards. Jimmy Johnson also wants a big-time runner, so he has brought in problem-child Lawrence Phillips, although it's uncertain how much playing time he'll see. Johnson likes to think he can keep problem players under control with his disciplined approach. Phillips will be the ultimate test.

Worth a look

Patriots at Jaguars: This is a rematch of last year's AFC title game. Since they're both tied for their division leads this time, it's a pivotal game. Both teams struggled at home to win last week against losing teams. For the Patriots, wide receiver Terry Glenn is questionable with a hamstring injury. His absence -- he has caught only 27 passes after catching 90 last year -- has had a major effect on the Patriots' offense. The Jaguars, meanwhile, kept bogging down in the red zone against the Ravens last week and had to settle for five field goals.

Vikings at 49ers: This was supposed to be a premiere matchup until Brad Johnson was lost for the season. With Randall Cunningham, who hasn't started in two years, at quarterback, the Vikings will have problems against the 49ers' strong defense. The significance of this game is that it should be the 49ers' first victory over a winning team. Coach Steve Mariucci is tired of hearing that his team is 11-0 against losing teams and 0-2 against winning teams. He's pointing that out the Rams were 1-0 when the 49ers beat them the first time.

Panthers at Cowboys: When this playoff rematch was put on the schedule, it looked like a good one. But both teams now have the slimmest of wild-card hopes at 6-7 and the loser officially will be eliminated from the playoff race. What the Cowboys don't want to admit is that they won't go anywhere in the playoffs if they make it.

Redskins at Cardinals: The Redskins' playoff hopes died in Arizona last year in their 15th game, and the same thing could happen this year in their 14th game of the season. They haven't won in Arizona since 1991, when Joe Gibbs was the coach, and the Cardinals refuse to tank their season despite a 3-10 record. They beat the Ravens on a late Joe Nedney field goal two weeks ago and came within a Nedney miss of upsetting Pittsburgh last week. Like the Cowboys, the Redskins are living on their reputation and aren't going anywhere even if they make the playoffs.

Filling out the schedule

Raiders at Chiefs: In the teams' first meeting on a Monday night in Week 2, the Chiefs appeared beaten until Elvis Grbac unloaded a 32-yard touchdown pass to Andre Rison with three seconds left. The Raiders never recovered and are 4-9, but the Chiefs are 9-4 and can tie Denver for the division lead if the Broncos lose at Pittsburgh. The Chiefs are surviving with surprising Rich Gannon at quarterback in place of the ailing Grbac.

Colts at Jets: The Colts are playing a road division game for the second straight week. They fell at New England, 20-17, last week, the seventh time they have lost by six points or fewer. One of them was a 16-12 loss to the Jets at home. After losing in Buffalo last week, the Jets can't take the Colts lightly.

Seahawks at Ravens: The oddsmakers list the Ravens as slight favorites even though they've won only one of their past nine LTC games because the Seahawks have lost three straight to drop out of the playoff race. But Warren Moon should exploit the Ravens' patched-up secondary unless the Seahawks go through the motions. Meanwhile, Eric Zeier should at least energize the Ravens' fans, who would have been quick to boo Vinny Testaverde.

Falcons at Chargers: Dan Reeves must have drawn up this schedule. The Falcons have won three straight -- against the Rams, Saints and Seahawks -- and go for four against another losing team.

Rams at Saints: Dick Vermeil vs. Mike Ditka. The problem with this game is that the coaches are more interesting than the players.

Bills at Bears: Marv Levy is showing that he can still coach at the age of 72. He can get the Bills to .500 on Sunday even though he hasn't found a quarterback to replace Jim Kelly.

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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