Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Grand Central

The road to the NFC Central title comes through Tampa Bay

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Head Coach Tony Dungy thinks his team has the desire to win

Prior to the National Football League's 12th week, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions were all knotted in a first-place tie in the NFC Central, Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy made this observation:

"It comes down to who wants it the most."

Cliché? Sure, maybe a little. But it takes on a very real sense when laid over the Buccaneers past, both distant and recent. Anyone who has gotten a whiff of the One Buccaneer Place atmosphere recently knows that Tampa Bay's 53 want this one very badly.

"Last year, we were about one game out of the playoffs and there was nothing we could do about it at the end of the season," said LB Hardy Nickerson. "The year before we were in control of our own destiny late in the season and we didn't have to wait on help from anybody. That's where we want to be this year. We don't want to have to worry about the outcomes of other games…we just need to take care of business, which we're determined to do."

After a breakthrough 1997 campaign in which the Buccaneers tied a team record with 10 regular season wins and went on to win a Wild Card playoff game over Detroit, Tampa Bay thought it was on the verge of a major upswing. That made the 8-8 backslide of 1998 a major disappointment, and soured some pundits who had penciled the Bucs into the Super Bowl, or at least prime contention for it. When wholesale changes were not made to the roster after '98, the 1999 season became a major proving ground for a team that felt it underachieved last year.

"I think what happened last year has helped us get through the first part of this season (when the team started off 3-4)," said Dungy. "We realized that we have to stay hungry, we have to keep ourselves motivated for each and every game because we know it's not going to be easy. The '98 experience really helped us focus in that way, so that we keep in control of what happens to us."

The Bucs are also hungry from an organizational standpoint, having not won their division since the 1981 season. Tampa Bay tooke the NFC Central crown in both '79 and '81, with both years hinging on key division battles down the stretch.

In 1979, Tampa Bay had a 9-3 record and their sights locked on the title in late November before consecutive home losses to Minnesota and Chicago. After another loss at San Francisco, plus a Chicago win at Green Bay, the Bucs came into the final weekend needing a win over Kansas City to take the crown. In a legendary contest nearly washed away by a game-long torrential downpour, the Bucs downed the Chiefs 3-0 and finished 10-6, with a tiebreaker edge over the Bears.

In 1981, the division competition was even more direct. The Bucs were only 5-6 after 11 weeks, but got a three-game winning streak started with a home win over Green Bay. After a loss to San Diego, the Bucs traveled to Detroit for what amounted to a winner-take-all matchup between two 8-7 teams (the Packers were also 8-7 heading into the final weekend after wins over Detroit and Minnesota, but lost to the Jets to finish 8-8). The loser of the game would not be able to secure a Wild Card spot.

Tampa Bay won a thrilling contest, 20-17, thanks largely to a fumble return for a touchdown by DT David Logan, and secured its second division title in three years. That kind of action could be repeated in 1999, but most of it will take place in Raymond James Stadium. Minnesota, Detroit and Green Bay (one game behind the leaders entering the 13th week) all must visit the Tampa Bay's imposing home in the month of December, beginning with tonight's Monday Night affair between the Bucs and the Vikings.

Detroit, which fired the first shot in this five-week war with a win over Washington on Sunday, visits Raymond James Stadium just six days later, on Sunday, December 12, and the Packers come to town one day after Christmas. With those three teams and the Buccaneers all within one game of each other, it is clear that the action in Tampa is going to go a long way towards resolving the division title chase. The Buccaneers do play one more divisional road game, at Chicago on January 2, but the most crucial Central battle on that final regular-season weekend may be Detroit's trip to Minnesota. The Vikings also host the Packers, which could give the Vikings a bit of homefield advantage in the race if they can defeat the Buccaneers on Monday.

The Buccaneers rebounded from a 4-7 start last year to finish 8-8 and remain in playoff contention until the final moments of the last Sunday of the season. Now they are finding that a reversed 7-4 record opens up many more attractive possibilities. With only St. Louis pulling away from the pack a bit, the Buccaneers' attractive home schedule in December could even lead to a little more Raymond James Stadium action in January.

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