Kansas City RB Priest Holmes has 13 rushing touchdowns through seven games
Which Kansas City team is coming to Tampa this weekend? The one that averaged 21 points per game during a 1-4 start to the 2004 season, or the one that just scored 101 points in back-to-back victories over Atlanta and Indianapolis.
Actually, both, and that makes the Chiefs something else for the host Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Role models.
The current Chiefs, at 3-4, are a combination, for better or for worse, of their rough start and their recent surge. They are quite suddenly back in the AFC West race, though, and that makes them a good example for the Buccaneers, who are similarly trying to counteract early-season struggles.
Actually, both teams have won two of their last three games, so the Bucs may not feel as if they need a role model. But Kansas City has pulled within 1.5 games of division-leading Denver in the AFC West while the Bucs, at 2-5, still trail NFC South-leading Atlanta by 3.5 games. Tampa Bay still has more of a climb to get back into its race, and they hope to follow the Chiefs' lead.
"They did it one game at a time, and that's got to be our focus," said Bucs LB Derrick Brooks. "One game at a time, hopefully get our second win a row this coming week and we'll see what happens after that."
After an 0-4 opening to the season, the Bucs won at New Orleans, lost a close one at St. Louis thanks to some ill-timed turnovers and then came back with another win over Chicago, leading into the bye week. The Bucs have quite obviously played better in the second quarter of the season, particularly on offense, and they're in position to prove that their first month was the aberration. One victory won't necessarily put the Bucs back in the race on its own, but it would be a rather emphatic statement of the team's turnaround, given the enormous challenge the Chiefs present.
That's exactly the way the Bucs want it.
"Every week's a challenge to me, to be honest with you," said Brooks. "With the amount of points they've scored over the past two weeks, you want [the challenge]. We step up and accept the challenge."
During their bye weekend, the Bucs had a chance to watch Kansas City's surgical cuts in a 45-35 win over the Colts. But Tampa Bay also saw its defense rise a spot to second in the league over the weekend while they were off. Tampa Bay didn't face the league's hottest team in its last game, a 19-7 win over Chicago, but neither did Kansas City play the NFL's strongest defense last weekend against Indy. The Colts, in fact, rank last in the NFL in that regard.
This weekend will be strength against strength.
"I'm going to be very complimentary of Kansas City on offense and what we've seen from their football team," said Tampa Bay Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Their offensive prowess is well-documented. They can run it, they can throw it, they can pass-protect and they've got star power at a lot of key positions, which is going to be a challenge for us.
"I'm also going to be very complimentary and confident in our defense. We don't feel like we're chopped liver here. We think that we play pretty good against the run and the pass and we feel like we've got a good defensive team with a chance to become great."
Tampa Bay's pass defense has rarely been questioned, ranking in the top 10 in the NFL in seven of the last eight seasons. It ranks first again this year, allowing just 148.6 yards per game, and as the pass rush starts to heat up (eight sacks in the last two games), the talented secondary will only get more productive.
It's the Buccaneer run defense that has periodically taken its lumps, currently ranking 21st in the league. Much of the team's struggles against the run came earlier in the season, and the Bucs have allowed just 85 yards per game over their last two contests. However, the interior of the offensive line has been robbed of its depth by injuries and the league's top rushing attack is coming to town to deliver the most severe test of the season.
Stop or even slow down Priest Holmes – he of the 833 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground – and the Bucs chances for victory will increase dramatically. That's no easy task, but the Bucs are confident in their abilities, and as focused as ever on controlling the ground game first.
"He's unbelievable," said Gruden of Holmes. "I think he's got 41 touchdowns in the last 20 games. I've never heard of a string like that. Not only is he a great runner, he's a true receiver. He's a natural – he catches the ball all over the place. And he's a fine [blitz] pick-up man; he's just a great player."
The Bucs counter with one of the league's most athletic linebacking corps and a pair of cornerbacks who are outstanding at run support on the perimeter. There are times when Holmes and his road-grading offensive line seem to run through defenses at will; the Bucs believe they can keep that from happening on Sunday. How well they can back that up could be the difference in Sunday's game.
And that just could be the difference in the Buccaneers' 2004 season.