LB Jamie Duncan and the Buccaneers want to wrap up the Lions and a strong finish to the season's third quarter
If narrow victories at Detroit and Cincinnati have taught the Tampa Bay Buccaneers anything this season, it's that you can never have too great of a fourth quarter lead.
That thought might be relevant in two ways today.
The Buccaneers take on the Detroit Lions this afternoon in what is effectively the closing minutes of the season's fourth quarter. After the 6-5 Bucs finish with the 0-11 Lions, only four of 16 regular season games will remain. Head Coach Tony Dungy thinks of that as the season's final quarter.
So the Bucs head into today's game against the Lions looking to maintain their third-quarter lead. They are 2-4 this season when they enter the fourth quarter behind in the count, and those are not odds they want to apply to the season as a whole.
Tampa Bay is currently tied with the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints for the final playoff spot, but the Bucs hold a tiebreaker edge in that race. They would prefer to make their postseason competitors play catch-up ball in the final quarter, but to do that they must keep the 0-11 Lions winless today.
The Bucs nearly allowed Detroit to erase that goose-egg a month ago in Detroit, when a 17-7 third-quarter lead evaporated in the second half of the final period. A two-minute drill and a clutch Martin Gramatica kick were needed to finalize a 20-17 Tampa Bay victory. Since, a similar lead in Cincinnati collapsed into an overtime battle, and a 24-17 victory in St. Louis needed several last-minute turnovers to come to a happy conclusion.
Dungy, who saw his team protect 30 of 32 third-quarter leads from 1997 through 2000, has been a bit taken aback by his team's struggles to close this season.
"You're always concerned about that," said Dungy. "The fourth quarter of games are kind of like December football. That's when you have to be at your best, and you don't want good teams to have chances to beat you. We gave St. Louis three chances in the fourth quarter, in the last seven minutes of the game. Usually, that is not going to be good for you. We've got to be better in that aspect of putting people away."
The Bucs have actually outscored their opponents, 73-54, in the fourth quarter this season, but that doesn't mean any of their six victories have been easy, besides the 41-14 drubbing of Minnesota in October (in which the Bucs did not score in the final period).
In fact, that's a misleading total. Tampa Bay scored 15 fourth quarter points in a 27-24 loss to Chicago and 14 in a 31-28 overtime defeat in Tennessee. Only 27 of those 73 points have come in the Bucs' six victories. The fact is, many of Tampa Bay's fourth quarters have been unbearably tense. The same is likely to be true of the 2001 season as a whole.
It would be a little easier to bear with a victory today, a 7-5 record and a protected tiebreaker edge over the winner of this afternoon's Saints-Falcons game. Can the Bucs accomplish those goals?
We'll know soon enough.
As usual, you'll be able to follow all of the action today and throughout the season in the Buccaneers.com GameDay section. This afternoon, Buccaneers.com will begin reporting from Raymond James Stadium at 12:00 p.m. ET, one hour before kickoff. Your only source allowed in the Bucs' locker room prior to the game, Buccaneers.com will provide two pre-game reports, complete with Head Coach Tony Dungy's thoughts. Once the Bucs and Lions have kicked off, that same space will carry game updates after each quarter.
Elsewhere in the Gameday section, you'll find links to constantly updated statistics, injury information, lineups, game photos, live play-by-play, postgame video conferences and more.