Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Into the South

The Bucs are about to begin a wild run to the finish through the NFC South, and it starts with a road game against the impressively focused New Orleans Saints

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The Bucs know first-hand how tough the Saints can be, having lost four of their last six to New Orleans

Eugene Wilson had to intercept a final pass in his own end zone for the defending-champion New England Patriots to hold off the New Orleans Saints, 24-17, two weekends ago. Last Sunday, those same road-weary Saints traveled to the Northeast again – for a night game, no less – and came out on top of a similarly spirited struggle. In this case, the New York Jets' Mike Nugent came up short on a 53-yard field goal attempt at the end of a 21-19 win for the visitors.

One win, one loss and one unmistakable conclusion: This team hasn't given up.

One could hardly blame them if they had. Hurricane Katrina turned the Saints into nomads just before the season began, and they have essentially played an entire season on the road. They've lost more than they've won – the Saints are last in the NFC South at 3-8 – but with the NFC South engaging in one big scrum over the last five weeks of the season they can definitely play a role in how the division is decided. And it appears the Saints will be as dangerous as ever.

"I think at the end of the day you need to tip your hat to them, because they're playing hard," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "They played well last night from what I saw. They took New England to the brink two weeks ago when they were behind 14-0. They have good players, they're well-coached and they've given us problems in the past. I'm looking forward to competing with these guys again."

The Saints won their season opener by beating the Carolina Panthers on the road, and those Panthers are now 8-3 and in first place in the South. They later took the 7-4 Atlanta Falcons to the brink in a 34-31 loss in San Antonio, one of their new homes for the season. The Saints' focus on football has impressed Gruden.

"I can't imagine that, honestly," said the Bucs' coach of dealing with the Saints' unique circumstances. "Your family, your friends…your city completely destroyed right before the season starts. I think you'd tend to forget about football a little bit, wouldn't you, and put things into perspective? It's a credit to Jim Haslett and these players for moving themselves to San Antonio and to Baton Rouge and [dealing with] being on the road every week and the distractions. Where are your kids going to school? Who's the family doctor now? All these distractions. I can't imagine that, I really can't."

The Saints have obviously been able to put the distractions aside for 60 minutes on game day, at least in the last two weeks, and the Bucs will have to do the same in Baton Rouge on Sunday. Since the NFC South was formed in 2002, Tampa Bay is just 2-4 against New Orleans, even though the Saints have not made the playoffs in that span. Two of the Bucs' last five games are against New Orleans, which makes the Saints an obvious key to Tampa Bay's own playoff aspirations. There are, in fact, six games still to be played between the four NFC South teams over the next five weeks.

"It will be interesting," said Gruden in an understatement. "It will be a very interesting finish."

Fortunately, the Bucs feel as if they are well-positioned for the stretch run. Obviously, Sunday's tough loss to Chicago puts them at a disadvantage to the Panthers, who own first place by a game. But the players will clear Sunday's disappointment from their minds quickly and realize they are very much in the thick of a wild NFC playoff race. There are seven NFC teams with seven or more wins, and another group of four teams lingering just behind the pack, waiting to pick off anyone who stumbles.

If the season ended today, the Bucs would be one of the NFC's six playoff representatives, thanks to their head-to-head win over the Falcons two weeks ago. Of course, it doesn't end today, and all the upcoming intra-division affairs will soon scramble the tiebreakers again. Still, the Bucs control their own playoff destiny, and that's a good place to be.

"We're 7-4 after 11 games and I'll say it again: I'm really proud of the progress that we're making," said Gruden. "We've proven that we're a very competitive football team and we'll fight you for 60 minutes. That's something I'm very proud of. We've got a lot of young guys, I think seven guys on offense playing a lot of the time, first-year players at their given positions. And they're going toe-to-toe with some great competition and doing quite well. So I'm excited about some of the progress that we've made and I'm eager to finish this schedule off like we started by playing hard and hopefully continuing to improve in some areas."

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