The Bucs are chasing an elusive road division win in Green Bay and Karl Williams is chasing a punt return record
It's early in the week, but so far no Tampa Bay Buccaneers players or coaches have trotted out the 'must-win' label in regards to the team's upcoming game at Green Bay.
That tag was applied pretty firmly to last week's matchup with the Vikings, and perhaps the resulting attitude played a part in the Bucs' inspired performance. In any case, the much-needed victory appears to have taken the edge of desperation off the team's trip to Wisconsin – barely. The 3-3 Bucs are still eager to avoid falling into the same 3-4 hole that has plagued each of their last three seasons and they know a winning streak is going to be necessary at some point this season.
But there is a more direct and concrete reason why this game still trips the importance meter for the Buccaneers, a potential victory that Head Coach Tony Dungy said would be a 'big, big' win, if not necessarily a 'must.'
It's an intra-division game on the road.
It may seem as if the Bucs have dug themselves a bit of a hole, but in terms of the division race, things are still very tight. Notably, not a single team has won a road game against a division opponent yet, meaning none of the five NFC Central denizens have a leg up in the competition yet. The Bucs, who haven't won in Green Bay since 1989, would love to break that string during their Central Division farewell tour.
"It would be a big, big win for us," said Dungy. "It would give us one more division win. It's a road-win, which no one has yet. It's big from that standpoint, and show that we can sustain an effort two, three, four weeks in a row, we're going to have to do that. It's a big game for us no doubt."
Of course, a team's entire record, not just its division wins, determines the standings at the end of the year, and road and home wins in the division count equally in terms of tiebreakers. However, in a division race that projects as a tight one, any wins on opposing fields are probably going to swing the balance in the overall records.
"To win the division, you're going to have to win some road games," said Dungy. "The first team that does that – jumps out and wins a couple of road games – they are going to be the favorites."
Here are the current standings in the NFC Central, with breakout records for division games, division home games and division road games. That final column is highlighted to show the failed road opportunities for each team so far.
Minnesota has the early lead in division wins but has burned all but one of its home games so far. Chicago has yet to play a division game on the road, but the Bucs' other three division opponents have already used up half of their division road opportunities. The 0-6 Lions may be the only team realistically out of the division race at this point, but their four remaining Central home games mean they will play a huge role in determining the eventual champion.
The Bucs' 41-14 decision over the Vikings on Sunday fell on October 28, almost exactly a year after an October 29, 2000 win over Minnesota by a score of 41-13.
Despite that overpowering deja vu, there was a significant occurrence in Sunday's game that had never before happened in the Bucs' 26-year history.
After punting on their opening possession, the Buccaneers scored on their next seven drives. Four straight marches ended in touchdowns, followed by two field goals and another touchdown in the third quarter.
It was the first time a Buccaneer team had scored on seven straight possession, representing the type of offensive efficiency the team had been searching before. While it might be a stretch to expect the offense to duplicate that feat, they would like the momentum to continue on into Green Bay and help achieve the goals discussed above.
"When you start playing well, and you're doing things well, you can get a lot of things done," said Dungy. "We just haven't been there, for whatever reason, and we were there this past week. Now we have to keep it there. We're going to have a tough task going up there and sustaining it in Green Bay, but if we do, we can get right back in the race and we think we're going to do that."
Before Sunday's game, Mike Alstott had not produced a 100-yard rushing effort since November 7, 1999 in New Orleans, though he had recorded several outstanding efforts in the interim.
Hopefully, the Bucs won't have to wait long for the next Alstott run at the century mark, because that achievement goes hand-in-hand with Tampa Bay victories.
Alstott now has five career 100-yard games and the Buccaneers are undefeated in those contests, with two each in 1998 and '99 before the most recent outburst. On six other occasions, Alstott has fallen short of the 100-yard rushing mark but gained 100 combined yards – that is, rushing and receiving yards added together – and the Bucs are 5-1 in those games as well.
Then, of course, there is the signature team statistic of Alstott's impressive six-year NFL career: in the 34 games that the Pro Bowl fullback has scored a touchdown, the Buccaneers are an amazing 29-5, including 2-0 this season.
Before Sunday, Karl Williams had a microscopic punt return average of 2.0 yards per runback through five games.
Of course, that was mostly the product of very few opportunities. Williams had just seven returns through the first five games thanks to poor defensive third-down play and the fact that most of the opponents' punts had been from near midfield, kicked deep into Buc territory. Williams took only one fair catch during that stretch, instead getting short returns on his record when he was immediately swarmed over.
But the Bucs were not preoccupied with that number, and Williams was back there again versus the Vikings. It didn't take long for Williams, who owns half of the six punt-return touchdowns in team history, to show why the team has once again entrusted him with the job.
'The Truth' returned three punts for 51 yards against the Vikings, including a 28-yarder in the third quarter that was almost solely responsible for Martin Gramatica's first field goal. Williams' return put the Bucs at the Vikings' 25, from where they actually lost a yard before settling for Gramatica's 44-yarder.
Those three returns got Williams' average up to a more respectable 6.8, and they also inched him closer to the top of the team's all-time punt return yardage chart. Williams is currently second with 1,454 yards, 102 behind Danny Reece's team-record 1,556. Notably, Williams has gotten within shouting distance of Reece's mark on nearly 100 less career returns (222 for Reece, 129 for Williams).