The Bucs' defense and Michael Vick, already a classic rivalry
Three points really changed everything.
That was the winning margin for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, the difference between 2-6 obscurity and 3-5 potential. Considering that there were seven lead changes in the shootout with the Chiefs, it's remarkable how many times the Bucs' 2004 season hung in the balance.
And it may still be hanging there.
You won't hear any 'must-win' or 'we're in good shape' proclamations this week out of One Buccaneer Place, where the team is in one-game-at-a-time mode. But it's not hard to see the divergent paths that could head out of Atlanta by late Sunday afternoon. Thinking positively, we'll skip over the effects of a possible loss to Atlanta this weekend and look at what could be, and what still can be thanks to the win over the Chiefs.
That is, if Tampa Bay can overcome the first-place Falcons, they will be 4-5 and two games back in the NFC South, with seven games to go, including one more against Atlanta. In other words, a playoff-hunting scenario that's at least plausible enough to contemplate.
Ah, but surely Head Coach Jon Gruden's method is better. (He says he avoids much of what is written about his team, in good times and bad, and thus isn't battered about by seeing his team written off or suddenly written back in, like a soap opera doppelganger.) Get excited about Sunday's big win, remain confident in your team's abilities, worry about the specific injuries that may hamper you and focus in keenly on the very next opponent. The one-game-at-a-time approach.
"I think the team is excited," said Gruden. "I think they're enthused. [New starting QB Brian] Griese has really excited and energized this football team with his play. We have some real obstacles to overcome when you lose two more big people, your center and your under tackle. It's going to be another gut check in Atlanta.
"We know Atlanta; they're going to come after you on both sides. They have the man taking snaps. This guy is a scary dude. He can run like the wind. I have never seen a guy run like this. We have to defend him and a good offensive football team. They have a great punt returner in [Allen] Rossum. Defensively, we know Ed Donatell and Jim Mora are going to have a unique blitz package. It's going to be a tough game on the road, in a loud souped-up dome."
The Bucs' two big injury concerns are center John Wade (out for the season) and defensive tackle Anthony McFarland (questionable with a shoulder injury). And "the man" is, of course, quarterback Michael Vick.
The NFC South is only in its third year of existence, but already it has several entertaining rivalries, perhaps none better than Vick against the Buccaneers' defense. That very concept drew the NFL commissioner to Tampa for a late 2002 game, one in which the Bucs held down the burgeoning star for the second straight time on their way to the Super Bowl. Vick missed the first game of 2003 due to injury but was back for another late-season matchup in Tampa and got the better of the Bucs that time, in a game that officially eliminated Tampa Bay from playoff contention.
This time around, Vick is coming off a bye week and is surely recharged and eager to renew the rivalry. He leads the Falcons in rushing, with 463 yards and a 7.1-yard per-carry average, and he has compiled an 81.3 passer rating while in and around the pocket. Vick has been sacked 25 times, surprisingly, but he has also escaped enough times to post two 100-yard rushing games and throw six touchdown passes.
In addition, Vick is in a new offense this season under first-year head coach Jim Mora and his imported offensive coordinator, Greg Knapp. So, while Vick's base talents are familiar to the Buccaneers, who have matched them on several occasions with defensive speed and sure tackling, the specifics of how he will be employing them are new.
"They have a new offensive coordinator, so nothing stays the same, although you still see a lot of bootlegs," said Gruden. "They move the pocket quite often. The guy has almost 500 yards rushing. That is one of the reasons the Falcons are ranked so high in rushing offense."
Former Buccaneer Warrick Dunn is another reason, as he continues to form the same sort of flash-and-power duo with T.J. Duckett that he used to share with Mike Alstott in Tampa. Dunn has the bulk of the carries (118 to 47 for Duckett) and seven of the Falcons' 10 rushing touchdowns, but Duckett has a superior per-carry average (4.7 to 3.7 for Dunn) and is the type of big back teams commonly like to throw at the Bucs' defense.
On defense, the Falcons started the season red-hot but have recently run into such strong offense as Kansas City, San Diego and Denver. The Falcons' defensive ranking of 29th might not be a huge improvement over last year, when they finished last in that category, but the Falcons definitely have more threats on that side of the ball this season. Rookie CB DeAngelo Hall is just rounding into shape after missing the first six games with a hip injury. DE Patrick Kerney (seven sacks) has been revitalized by the switch back to a 4-3 front. Run-clogger Rod Coleman, out for several weeks due to injury, is expected to return this week. And weak-side LB Keith Brooking is a former Pro Bowl selection.
Of course, the Bucs have been resurgent on offense over the last month, with Griese working at a very high rate of efficiency and RB Michael Pittman giving the team its most productive running game in a long time. Vick vs. the Bucs' D may be the game's headliner, but there is as much potential for excitement when the Bucs' offense and Atlanta's defense are on the field.
And there's plenty of potential excitement left in the Buccaneers' season. Even after the win over the Chiefs, the Bucs still face an uphill battle. But hope is still alive. For his part, Gruden never stopped believing.
"I would never bury some of the guys we have in our locker room," he said. "I just have a philosophy that once you are a champion, you are a champion forever. I don't want to sound corny, but if you watch some of these guys play, there is always a chance."