Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Cresting the Hill

The Bucs’ roller-coaster season could pick up speed now that they’ve scaled their biggest challenge so far

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With his team's confidence restored, Head Coach Tony Dungy looked ahead, if only slightly, on Monday afternoon

If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2000 season has been a roller coaster ride so far – and a pattern of three big wins, four straight losses and one very big win certainly qualifies – then the wildest part of the attraction is probably still ahead.

After a September that did nothing but add fuel to the Super Bowl talk surrounding the team, four straight late-game losses completely sapped its forward momentum, leaving the Bucs at the bottom of a hill looking up. Did Sunday's 41-13 dismantling of the previously undefeated Vikings get them all the way back to the top of the hill? Are they ready to get back up to speed and barrel through the second half of the season as they did last year?

Head Coach Tony Dungy would certainly like to believe so.

"I hope so, and I think we have some things going for us that way," said Dungy. "With the weather here, we're able to practice well and I think, because of that, that's why we get better as we go down the stretch. If we stick to what we do well and think basic, sound, fundamental football and continue to practice well, I think we'll get better and hopefully get on one of those hot November streaks."

On the other hand, Dungy isn't sure if one game proves that his team has crested the hill yet. Recent Buccaneer season have certainly featured obvious turning points, but they weren't necessarily obvious at the time.

"I don't think you ever know," said Dungy. "We talked about it Saturday night, that many times one play, you can look back and that's the play that kind of got you going and ignited things. We've had that in the last couple of years, but until you get through, you never know. We had some big plays in the games earlier and we've had some good quarters and things like that. We had one good day, but now we've got to put that together with three good practices this week and another good day."

More than just a 'W', which certainly bolstered the Bucs' tarnished playoff hopes, the Vikings game was a validation of how the team is trying to go about business. The month's worth of losses had led to some consternation, because the Buccaneers were self-destructing in areas that were generally considered strengths: run offense, run defense, special teams, tight fourth quarters, etc. There was nothing new added to the formula on Sunday, just a dramatic improvement in execution.

"That's what we needed to do was play well," said Dungy. "Obviously, we needed a win. It had been a long time since we played a complete game. I thought we got that yesterday – big plays from both sides of the ball, special teams being solid, we kicked well, we didn't have major breakdowns. That was therapeutic knowing that we played that way."

It's difficult to find much wrong with Tampa Bay's performance on Sunday. The defense gave up 401 yards, but that was due in part to the Bucs' big second-half lead and the quickness with which Tampa Bay's offense was scoring. Cris Carter and Randy Moss combined for 14 catches and 180 yards, but they never got deep on the Buccaneers' secondary.

Still, if you look hard enough – a failed fourth-and-one for the offense, a 50% third-down success rate by the Vikings – you can find a few faults here and there. The coaching staff will certainly look that hard and this team will understand that all the imperfections weren't brushed over in one day.

"When we get in the film room, they will know that everything is not all right," said Dungy. "There are still a few things that we have to correct. As well as we played, there are still a few things that we could have done better and that's what you're going to have to focus in on. We're going to come down the stretch run and we're not going to be able to make many mistakes."

That contrasts with the Vikings, who probably won't lick their wounds from Sunday too long knowing they still have a 7-1 record, tied for the best in the NFC. The Bucs, meanwhile, are 4-4 for the second straight year, a record that wouldn't survive another prolonged slump.

"I thought we would be a lot more consistent this year but we've been a team of ups and downs since I've been here," said Dungy. "We try to do the same things every week and have the same routine and prepare the same way.

"But obviously we're not getting the job done. We seem to get in these positions where we can't afford to lose any more games and then we start to play the way we know how. When we play like we did yesterday, when we don't make mistakes, when we don't turn the ball over, don't really self destruct – we have a chance to win every week."

That starts in Atlanta on Sunday, which is as far ahead as Dungy is looking. The Bucs have had a good start on the road this season, winning two of their first four, but will need to mine a few more wins away from home to get where they want to go, since the best mark they can put together in Raymond James Stadium is now 6-2.

"I didn't figure we'd lose two home games, and that's probably the most disappointing thing out of the first half, to have two homes games where you're ahead and pretty much had control of the game, and end up losing them," said Dungy. "We dug ourselves a little bit of a hole, but I think in the four games we've won, we've shown what we're capable of. Now we've got to be able to do that more consistently in the second half of the year. If we do, we'll be fine."

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