Both the Buccaneers and Rams have been good at scoring points with their special teams and defense this season
In 1999, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 11-5 during the regular season and earned one of the NFC's two first-round byes despite outscoring their opponents by just 35 points all season. The Bucs' defense was extremely stingy, as expected, but the offense didn't light up the scoreboard very often.
This year, the Bucs have set a new team record for points in a season while remaining one of the league's hardest squads to score upon. The net gain? Just that: a net gain.
The NFL's playoff tiebreaker rules are necessarily complicated, although most scenarios turn on head-to-head results, division records or conference records. If those factors cannot break a tie, however, the deciding factor can become net point differential in conference games. For once, that's a good thing in Tampa Bay.
Virtually without exception, Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy passes on opportunities to run up the score on opponents. In Atlanta on November 5 of this year for instance, the Bucs had a 27-7 lead and possession of the ball deep in Falcons territory late in the fourth quarter. Rather than pursuing another touchdown or taking an easy field goal, Dungy had his third-string, QB Joe Hamilton, tuck the ball away and run on third and fourth down.
Dungy also put in his second-string defense for some valuable work on the Falcon's ensuing possession, and Atlanta drove downfield for a score to make the final margin of victory just 13 points instead of what could have been 27. Dungy doesn't regret the decision now as tiebreakers loom.
"We've been fortunate – we're pretty good in net points," he said. "I've never liked that idea of points deciding it, because I think it does put that thought in the back of your mind, trying to score when there's really no need to score. We've never tried to do that, but we're sitting pretty good. So I think in our case this year, it's okay. But it's not something that I would like to see us rely on."
Chances are, they won't have to. At least one scenario exists in which net conference point differential could make a difference in the Bucs' playoff path.
Should Philadelphia, after enjoying a bye this weekend, defeat Cincinnati in its season finale and the Buccaneers complete the season with wins over both St. Louis and Green Bay, both teams would be 11-5. Assuming Philadelphia hasn't passed the New York Giants for first place in the NFC East, it would then be necessary to determine whether the first Wild Card seed belonged to the Eagles or Bucs.
In that scenario, the early tiebreakers would fail to decide the matter, and it would come all the way down to net points in conference games. Thanks to Buccaneer blowout wins over Minnesota (41-13), Chicago (41-0), Detroit (31-10) and Dallas (27-7), Tampa Bay has a mark of 101 in that category. Philadelphia is 75, with no more NFC games to play.
One current theory regarding last year's NFC Championship Game in St. Louis is that the Rams contributed to the low-scoring aspect of the game by running a more conservative game plan than usual. The Rams, it is being suggested, kept extra blockers in to counter the Bucs' fierce pass rush, thereby reducing the 'spread' in their spread offense.
The Rams did hold the Buccaneers without a sack on that day, but they also scored their lowest point total of the year and didn't reach the end zone until the last five minutes of the game.
Will St. Louis counter by opening it up this weekend, Tampa Bay's improved pass rush notwithstanding? DT Warren Sapp believes they will.
"A year ago, when they played us in the championship game, they kept some people in and chipped and did some different things," said Sapp. "I expect them to release them (this year). It kind of limited their offense and I expect them to release them and go with what they do. We like that plan, because we're going to come out and do what we do. We're going to play (cover) two, we're going to play a little man-to-man, and we'll see what happens.
"We went to Miami and they condensed the game. We had to get down in our gaps and play the run, buckle up and do what we needed to do to win that game. In this game, they're going to put us out in space and we'll use our speed and quickness. It's going to be a matchup of strengths. Their speed on offense and our speed on defense. We'll see what happens."
So, fully expecting an adjustment from the Rams, do the Buccaneers counter with their own adjustment?
"We're probably not as smart as they are," said Dungy in mock self-deprecation. "We can't change very much. We have to do what we do. We'll try to hold them down as best as we can, but they're a great offense. They've scored a lot of points. They didn't score a lot against Carolina, so we're hoping that we can play that type of game."
Helping the Bucs' point differential this season has been seven touchdowns on returns of one kind or another. Two of those return scores – a punt return by Karl Williams and a runback of a blocked field goal by Donnie Abraham – have come compliments of the special teams.
Last season, St. Louis led the league with nine return touchdowns. They haven't duplicated that amazing effort as of yet in 2000, but they do have four runback scores, including one on punt returns and one on kickoff returns. Just as they were in 1999, the Rams are one of the league's most dangerous squads on special teams.
"They can score in a lot of ways and they've done a great job in the return game," said Dungy. "Not having Tony Horne has hurt their kickoff returns, but Az Hakim is a guy that's really been amazing on punt returns."
Horne has missed the Rams' last three games with a toe injury and has been ruled out for Monday contests. Hakim is completely healthy, however, which he demonstrated with four punt returns for 61 yards in last week's St. Louis win over Minnesota. The longest of those returns, a 35-yarder, set up one of the Rams' touchdowns in a 40-point explosion.
Hakim leads the NFL in punt return average with a mark of 17.0 and has already scored this season on an 86-yard runback.
"We've got to do a good job of covering and kicking and making it difficult for him to go," said Dungy.