Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Unchartered Territory

A turnover-minded defense keys a team-record six-game winning streak

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DT Warren Sapp has forced three fumbles on sacks in the last four weeks

The last time Tampa Bay played Detroit, the civic mood in Tampa was a little darker than it is today. The Bucs dropped an ugly 20-3 decision to the Lions in Detroit on Halloween night, and a local paper followed up with the assertion that Tampa Bay might not win another game all season.

The Bucs conducted their rematch with Detroit on Sunday and things now look decidedly brighter. Dungy likes to refer to that local article with a good-natured wink, but its sentiments are a thing of the past now that Tampa Bay has won six straight and is alone in first place in the NFC Central. Tampa Bay has never won six in a row in a single season before, although a season-ending victory in 1996 was followed by five wins to start the '97 season.

That five-game streak in 1997 matched a similar five-game set that opened the 1979 season. Those seasons are connected to the current one not only by the fact that they all resulted in playoff berths, but also by the outstanding defense that was played in each campaign. The 1979 squad is the only Buccaneer defense ever to finish the season ranked first overall. The 1997 team finished third in the NFL in total defense and this year's unit was in the same position entering tonight's contest.

Perhaps more importantly, the 1999 defense has learned how to take the ball away. After accounting for just six turnovers in the first seven games, the Buccaneer defense has come up with 19 takeaways during the six-game winning streak. Tampa Bay had just one takeaway in Sunday's win, but it was a crucial one, as S John Lynch's fourth-quarter interception and return to the Detroit 24 set up the game-winning touchdown. DT Warren Sapp also had a key forced fumble in the fourth quarter on a sack of QB Gus Frerotte, but Frerotte recovered.

Dungy, of course, is just gratified that his entire team is playing with the type of intensity that leads to these game-turning plays. "I'm really pleased with our hustle, with our energy and with our effort," said Dungy after Sunday's victory. "Those three things have enabled us to not play as well as we're capble of playing but still find ways to win ballgames. Our goal is to put it all together over the next few weeks and start peaking s the playoffs arrive."

Of course, some would argue that a six-game winning streak is already evidence of a peaking team. Sunday's victory not only vaulted the Bucs into sole possession of first place but also gave them the second-best record in the wide-open NFC playoff race. If the postseason began today, Tampa Bay would join St. Louis with a first-round playoff bye.

Dungy is leery of such predictions, with three weeks left to play in the regular season. "A lot of guys on this team have been waiting for this for a very long time," he said. "We thought when we came here four years ago that we would be in position to do what we're doing right now. It's like I told the team in the locker room, it's like the Indianapolis 500 and we're in the pole position. Just because you're on the pole doesn't guarantee that you're going to win the race. There are some other people chasing us and if we play like we're capable of playing, we'll get to where we want to go."

The next step in that path could be a lucky seven for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay has never won seven consecutive games before. To do so, they would have to win in Oakland, a venue in which they have also never tasted victory. Of course, for the Buccaneers, this season has been all about winning when it wasn't expected.

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