Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Reading the Tea Leaves

There’s a lot at stake Monday night in Minnesota, and a lot of ways to view the scenario

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The Buccaneers have done well enough in domes and on Monday Night Football, but not at the same time

It's a quiet day at One Buccaneer Place, unusual for a Wednesday. Usually, the team begins its preparations for the next opponent on that morning, with the first full-scale practice on Wednesday afternoon.

However, with the Bucs programmed to play on Monday in Minnesota this week, the team's schedule was pushed forward by one day and Wednesday became an additional off day for the Buccaneer players. That blip in the schedule might have actually come at a good time for Tampa Bay.

"I think it helped us," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "We had some injuries after a real physical game against Washington, and we should be much further along. It gives us two days to really look at Minnesota, which has been very explosive on offense and has been doing some different things. I think it came at a good time. We'll have the Monday night game, then we'll have a couple days off after that to get ready for Detroit. I think the schedule's falling well for us."

So it's another day to rest for the banged-up members of the squad. For us, it's another day to read the tea leaves.

That can be a confusing exercise given the circumstances of this game.

For instance, Tampa Bay is 3-3 all-time on Monday Night Football, a respectable if brief record considering only three teams in the NFC are over .500 on that pressure-packed night. However, Tampa Bay's home-road split on MNF is less encouraging; all of the Bucs' three wins have come at home (3-1).

The Bucs are looking forward to the Prime Time trip anyway. "I think so," said Dungy of the team's eagerness to play on Monday night. "We've had a couple in the last three years, and everybody gets fired up to play on national television. It couldn't have worked out better for us this time, because you don't even have the short week afterward thanks to the bye week."

The Bucs have even played Minnesota on Monday Night Football before, and have faced the Vikings in prime time on three occasions overall, with good success. QB Shaun King made his debut as a starter last December 6 in the Bucs' previous Monday night matchup with Minnesota and Tampa Bay prevailed 24-17 in a battle for division supremacy. Previously, the Bucs won an ESPN Sunday Night game against the Vikings in Tampa Stadium on 11/21/93, 23-10, and narrowly lost to their northern visitors, 26-24, on another ESPN Sunday Night outing on December 8, 1991. The Bucs have never played a night game in Minneapolis, however.

Of course, the Vikings also have an interesting situational record: 4-0 in games they've played this season. That might be an intimidating factor for any team entering a crucial contest on their opponent's home turf, but the Bucs actually have some extensive recent experience against undefeated foes.

Since the beginning of the 1997 season, Tampa Bay has played against an undefeated opponent on six occasions (not counting 0-0 teams), and has won four of those games. Included in that string was the Bucs' most impressive victory of 1998, a 27-24 shootout victory over Minnesota in Raymond James Stadium on November 1. The Vikings were 7-0 coming into that game; in fact, that loss to the Buccaneers was the only blemish on Minnesota's '98 regular-season record.

On the other hand, here's another set of numbers that's less flattering for the Buccaneers. Since the Bucs' ship was launched in 1976, the team has never won on October 9, going 0-4. Sadly, the Bucs are 3-0 in games on October 8, the date they would have been playing on had they had the usual Sunday schedule. Let's just file that one under 'meaningless' and hope for the best.

Perhaps more relevant is the team's record overall in October, since a month's worth of games might indicate a trend better than one specific date. Under Dungy, the Buccaneers are a bothersome 4-10 in the season's second month, 34-21 in all other months. That's a sizeable difference in winning percentage of .218 (.618 to .400).

"I don't know what it is, but we do seem to hit that slump," said Dungy. "We've gotten off to some good starts and we always seem to finish well and play well in November and December. But when we really have a chance to get rolling and get some momentum in October, we've struggled."

More relevant still is the Bucs' all-time road mark of 48-141 (25.4%). That's misleading, of course, because it includes many years of general futility for the Tampa Bay franchise. Over their last 20 road games, the Buccaneers are actually 9-11, a very respectable road record in the National Football League. Tampa Bay, in fact, has won its last three games inside a dome.

"We actually should be good in domes," said Dungy. "In '97, our first playoff year, I think we had four games in domes and won them (all). We've got a team that plays well on Astroturf. We've got a lot of speed and I think the surface is to our favor as long as we deal with the noise and get off to a good start."

There are also some 'hangover' type numbers that might be worth looking into…that is, records a team has posted after certain events. For instance, while the Buccaneers have been outstanding in overtime for the better part of two decades (Tampa Bay's loss to Washington last Sunday was its first in overtime since 1988), they have struggled the week after sudden death tilts. Tampa Bay is 4-12 overall in games that followed overtime decisions.

In addition, the Bucs have a strangely ineffective record before their bye weeks. The NFL began inserting a bye week into each team's schedule in 1992 (there were two bye weeks in 1993), and in that span, Tampa Bay has gone 1-8 in games before their bye. After Monday's effort in Minnesota, the Bucs will take the next Sunday off before returning for a Thursday contest at home against Detroit on October 19.

"I would have to say that's a coincidence," said Dungy. "Maybe it goes into who you're playing…I don't know. But that's something we need to change around, for sure."

You get the basic idea. Dungy doesn't exactly buy into supposed indicators like these, and for good reason. The Bucs have gradually broken down a number of team taboos since Dungy arrived, as was recently demonstrated with the team's dominating win in Detroit.

There is, however, one streak that is quite real and needs to be halted. The Bucs have lost two games in a row and our in danger of their first three-game losing streak since midway through the 1998 season. That unfortunate stretch, which covered games against Tennessee, Jacksonville and Detroit from November 8 to November 22 (right after the aforementioned win over the Vikings), ultimately doomed the Bucs' playoff hopes. Each game in that stretch was very close, two decided by five points or less and the other remaining in doubt until late in the fourth quarter.

In this case, the Bucs want to make sure history doesn't repeat itself.

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