One of the key battles on Sunday will be in the trenches, where a strong Bucs interior line meets a tough Jets defense
Forget for a moment Keyshawn vs. Wayne and Vinny's trip home. Forget the personality issues of this Sunday's New York Jets at Tampa Bay Buccaneers game and look at the raw numbers.
The Jets are 3-0. The Bucs are 3-0.
As exciting as this clash of the unbeatens is, it's also unprecedented territory for both teams. In its 25-year history, Tampa Bay has never before been involved in a game between two 3-0 teams (or 4-0 or 5-0, for that matter).
Neither have the Jets. New York, in fact, hasn't been 3-0 since its AFL days in 1966, and has never been 4-0. The Bucs have twice managed to get to 5-0, in 1979 and most recently in 1997 when the team broke a 15-year playoff drought.
"It's kind of unusual when you have a couple of teams that are 3-0," said Head Coach Tony Dungy, recognizing the rarity of the game before it was brought to his attention. "But I think they're playing good football and we are, too. It should be a heck of a game."
So, even though the NFL calendar hasn't flipped a month yet and nobody is going to write a playoff ticket with a victory in Week Four, this Sunday's game is the first truly big game in what could be a season full of them for Tampa Bay.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. This game has a number of streaks riding on it. The Buccaneers could set a new franchise record by winning their ninth straight regular-season home game (the previous record of eight was set between October 13, 1996 and September 28, 1997). The Jets are riding the NFL's longest overall winning streak, a seven-game stretch dating back to last season, which New York finished by winning four in a row.
The Jets also have a four-game victory streak in the all-time battle between the two teams, with Tampa Bay's lone win in seven tries coming in 1984. The Buccaneers are trying to extend their overall regular-season winning streak to six games, and 12 of the last 13. That would tie the team mark for consecutive victories, first set on the last day of 1996 and the first five of '97 and then tied last season between November 7 and December 12.
But more than just a game of 'Who's Streak is Longer', this game pits strength against strength unlike any of the Bucs' first three contests.
Unlike Detroit, which was ranked last in the league in offense, or Chicago, which currently has the league's 29th-rated defense, the Jets are in the top ten on both offense (10th) and defense (9th). They represent the Bucs' most complete opponent so far.
"They are," said Dungy. "They're playing very well. They had the same type of situation as we did last week, where they had a 2-0 team in Buffalo and they really dismantled them. They're playing well, they won in Lambeau Field already, so we're going to have our work cut out for us."
The Buccaneers lead the league with 18 sacks and have, at times, looked unstoppable on the pass rush. Get out your 'Irresistible-Force-Meets-Immovable-Object' translation chart, because you're going to hear that famous phrase on Sunday considering the Jets have allowed just two sacks through three games. The Jets' offensive line strength is right up the middle with center Kevin Mawae and guards Randy Thomas and Kerry Jenkins. That coincides with the best part (so far) of the Bucs' pass rush, as interior linemen Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland have combined for eight sacks already.
"They've got very good players inside," said Dungy. "Vinny (Testaverde) is getting rid of the ball quick and throwing it well. They've had 115 passes and two sacks, which is a tremendous ratio."
The Bucs will want to run the ball but the Jets aren't interested in letting that happen. Tampa Bay is averaging 138.7 rushing yards per game and is ranked fifth in the NFL in that category; the New York defense is allowing just 80.7 yards of ground gain per week and are ranked eighth against the run. That could mean another fine interior battle in the trenches on the flip side of the ball as Buc center Jeff Christy and guards Randall McDaniel and Frank Middleton square off against talented nose tackle Jason Ferguson, who anchors the Jets' 3-4 defense.
"They have stopped the run," said Dungy. "They play a 3-4 like New England, which is normally different for us but it will be the second time in four weeks that we've gone against it. So there's a lot of carry-over from that. But they're big, strong guys. They're very physical and they want to take you out of the run game and force you to throw."
That very much mirrors the Bucs' defensive philosophy each week. Last Sunday, the team was, first and foremost, concerned about the Lions' running game with James Stewart. The Detroit attack never got going because the Bucs limited Stewart to 17 rushing yards and the Lions gave up on the ground game quickly. Dungy expects the Jets to commit to the run longer as they have a proven producer in Curtis Martin.
"They have so far," said Dungy. "They've got a big weapon in Martin and they get the ball to him in a lot of different ways. We want to go in and do the same thing we did in Detroit, hopefully eliminate him and make them one-dimensional."
There are key matchups such as that one all over the field on Sunday, befitting of the game that should top the NFL's ledger this weekend. It's 3-0 versus 3-0, and that's worthy of the football nation's attention.
"It doesn't really happen very often," said Dungy. "You look at the whole league this year and there's only one (such) game."