Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Diverging Paths

With a wide range of postseason possibilities still on the table, the Bucs are focusing on the task ahead (and other notes)

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S John Lynch believes his team can focus despite the uncertainty ahead

With a wide range of postseason possibilities still on the table, the Bucs are focusing on the task ahead (and other notes)

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers welcomed the much-anticipated Y2K in the Windy City. Where they'll spend Y2K 1 is still a mystery.

The 1999 regular season stretched just into January, so the Bucs' season finale was in Chicago and the team spent Friday and Saturday evenings on Michigan Avenue before their Sunday game in Soldier Field.

This year, New Year's Eve will coincide with the Wild Card weekend of the NFL playoffs, an event of which the Buccaneers may very well be a part. The team currently holds an edge on one of the three NFC Wild Card spots with two games to go.

On the other hand, they could be at home, idle, on that weekend. And that could be a very good thing or a very bad thing.

Surprisingly, the Buccaneers could still win the NFC Central and home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The two division winners with the best records also earn a bye during the opening week of the playoffs, so that scenario would have Tampa Bay resting at home awaiting their first opponent.

On the other hand, while a win next Monday over St. Louis would guarantee the Bucs a playoff spot, losses against both the Rams and the Packers over the next two weeks could leave the Bucs out of the postseason picture entirely.

That's a lot to digest for Buccaneer players, who would prefer the security of knowing where they will be when the new year rolls around. What the team does now, and what they have chosen to focus on, is that they do control their own playoff destiny.

"You avoid thinking about (the uncertainty) by taking the attitude we have of late, which is that we know that if we just take care of our own business, we're in," said safety John Lynch. "We feel like that's all we need to do, get in, and then we know we can do some damage."

The team's mental state is also bolstered by the fact that this situation isn't completely new to them.

"We're in the same position we were last year," said Brooks, correctly noting that the Buccaneers had not secured either a playoff spot or the division title after 14 games in 1999. "We just came off the road, though last year it was a loss in Oakland. This year it's a win, we've got a Monday Night game at home that we've got to win. If we win out, who knows? We could win the division or host our own playoff game. We just want to win this game here and get in the playoffs."

The Buccaneers, winners of three hard-fought games in a row, have done a fine job of following Head Coach Tony Dungy's edict to concentrate on the task at hand. However, the team's week-by-week focus on winning and their goal of making the playoffs converge this Monday, as a victory over St. Louis secures a spot.

"The fact that it has so many playoff ramifications as well makes it even bigger," said Lynch of the long-awaited Bucs-Rams showdown. "Ultimately, that's the most important thing for us right now.

"I think we've put ourselves in a situation where every game's so important that we haven't been able to afford ourselves the opportunity to look ahead. So that's been good. But this was one game that, when you saw the schedule at the beginning of the year, you said, 'That's going to be fun.' We're looking forward to it, I'm sure they are, and it's going to be a good showdown."

Dungy doesn't even bother to get too deep into the various scenarios, knowing he can only influence his own team's outcomes.

"It's very jumbled," said Dungy. "It's been that way for about the last four or five weeks. That's what you have to focus on – just keep winning. You don't know what's going to happen to other people. All of a sudden one team's ready to go, they're a lock to be in and two weeks later they're not. What we have to do is keep winning and not worry where it's going to put us, but make sure we keep our momentum and keep winning."

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The Bucs will also know in two weeks where they'll be headed in the fall of 2001, and which teams will be making a trip to Tampa.

The NFL's annual schedule-making is done using a predetermined formula that takes division standings into account and rotates yearly division-vs.-division matchups. That formula is a matter of public record, so any team can figure out their 2001 opponents as soon as the last weekend of NFL play concludes on Christmas Day, though the dates and times of the games won't be determined until the spring.

We have kept a running watch of that issue here on Buccaneers.com, and it's time for another update. The results are becoming much more concrete, as teams begin to settle into tentative positions in their divisions. Tampa Bay, for instance, has a hold on second place in the NFC Central but could finish as high as first or as low as fourth.

Plugging the current standings into the formula, the Buccaneers would have home games against Philadelphia, New Orleans, Baltimore and Jacksonville in addition to its normal division opponents, Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota.

On the road, the Bucs would have to travel to St. Louis, Dallas, Tennessee and Cincinnati as well as the four NFC Central cities.

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The Bucs' secondary against the Rams' vaunted passing attack will probably get top billing in this week, but Monday's game will also feature the NFL's two top pass rushers from the last two seasons.

Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp did not lead the league in sacks last year when he piled up 12.5, and he's not leading the league in 2000 with his current total of 13.5. However, that total of 26 sacks is the most in the NFL since the beginning of the 1999 season. That consistent dominance explains why Sapp was selected as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year this year and is a prime candidate again in 2000.

However, Sapp is just one half-sack ahead of another player on that list, and that sack-master will also be in the house on Monday. St. Louis defensive end Kevin Carter has 25.5 sacks since the beginning of 1999, including a league-leading 17 last season. Carter currently ranks second on the Rams' sack list with 8.5 this year, behind Grant Wistrom's 11.

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Sapp will have some strong competition in defending his Defensive Player of the Year award, but he seems like a sure bet to attend his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl.

The final results of NFL.com's online balloting for the 2001 Pro Bowl were recently released, and Sapp not only led his NFC position in votes, he was the most popular defensive choice in the entire league.

Sapp earned over 159,000 votes and the next highest total for a defensive player was 131,000 by Tennessee defensive end Jevon Kearse. Baltimore cornerback Rod Woodson, with 108,000 votes, and San Diego LB Junior Seau, with 107,000, were the only other defensive players to even hit six digits.

If Sapp is as much of a lock as those numbers would indicate – in-stadium voting also must be counted and fan voting is only one third of the Pro Bowl selection process – then he should get another chance to mingle with some of his NFL buddies.

The Buccaneers formed their player and coach ballots, the other two thirds of the selection process, on Monday, and that involved the entire defensive squad in one room debating the candidates. It's a fairly organized process that produces one composite ballot, but Lynch suggested that Sapp might have had a strong influence in the room.

"Basically, it's who Warren Sapp wants to hang out with in Hawaii," said Lynch of the Bucs' ballot.

Lynch was joking, and Sapp, passing in the hallway, got a good laugh out of it. It's likely the two will be trading jibes in Honolulu this February, as Lynch also held a huge lead at his position in the online balloting. But approaching the question from a more serious angle, Lynch did admit that some of the voting was difficult.

"Some positions are hard, like tight end," he said. "(Eagle) Chad Lewis has 60 catches, but we haven't played them. We haven't even studied their film with anyone. Some positions, it's not exact science. We put them up there and we vote. We do it up on the board. For the most part, it works pretty good."

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