Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Stretch Run

Despite an up-and-down three months, the Buccaneers feel in control of their own destiny

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DE Chidi Ahanotu believes the Bucs are poised for a playoff run

With 10 weeks of the 1999 NFL season gone, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 5-4. As it turns out, that record is as close to the NFC Central division lead as it is to .500.

Surprising? Not necessarily. The six NFL division winners in 1998 were different from the six in 1997. It is possible that the six 1999 winners will be a complete change from the '98 champs. In this competitive and unpredictable landscape, any team that has stayed in the pack could take control down the stretch.

The Buccaneers believe they are in position to be that team. Tampa Bay's three most difficult intra-division road games are already behind them. The first-place Detroit Lions (6-3), the Minnesota Vikings (6-4) and the Green Bay Packers (4-5) must all visit Raymond James Stadium during the month of December. The roster is relatively healthy and both the offensive and defensive units believe they are just now hitting their strides.

Though the Bucs hoped to be on top of the Central by now, the team's current standing does not come as a complete surprise to Head Coach Tony Dungy. "We kind of knew going into the season that it could turn out this way," said Dungy on Saturday. "We were going on the road early in the year and just missing. We knew we would be back in the division race if we just started playing ball. That's the way it is in the NFL right now. The team at 6-2 on the top and the team at 2-6 on the bottom are not that far apart."

Defensive Chidi Ahanotu, who is second on the team with 6.5 sacks, believes the Bucs still have the opportunity to escape some early-season poor play. "We're in a very good situation," said Ahanotu. "The position we're in already is our own fault – we've played some bad football in a couple of games – but you're seeing that all around the league. What will be important down the stretch is attention to detail, which we preach around here. If we don't practice it, it will be our own fault."

As Ahanotu and the rest of the roster knows, the schedule ahead is rigorous but potentially favorable. Including last week's 17-10 downing of the Kansas City Chiefs, the Bucs play five of their final eight games at home. Almost always an advantage in the NFL, the homefield edge is particularly important in the mind of some Buccaneers. "Everyone knows how hard it is to play on the road in this league," said Ahanotu. "Our fans are great, and we don't want to let them down. That puts another gallon of gas in our tank. They've been with us through the good times and the bad."

"I think we're the only team that plays five of eight games at home (in the second half)," added LB Derrick Brooks. "We have three big division games at home. Plus, not every team can practice in this type of weather three times a week."

Ahanotu and his defensive mates are ranked fifth in the NFL and are coming off back-to-back strong performances in New Orleans and at home against Kansas City. The offense is ranked much lower (21st) but is also riding two straight good outings and is hoping to continue its improvement so that the Bucs are a solid title contender all around.

"This first nine weeks," said resurgent QB Trent Dilfer, "we just kind of put ourselves in position. We've given ourselves a chance. It's really a matter of whoever gets hot now. If it's us, then you can just chalk the first nine weeks up to a learning experience."

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