Bucking a Tampa trend, Bucs brace for big game

Week 15 Preview

December 05, 1997|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers returned home at about 2 a.m. Monday after their victory over the New York Giants, coach Tony Dungy had to stop to fill up his gas tank.

"A lot of people were already talking about the Packers game at 2: 15 in the morning," he said. "That's a good sign, I think."

It's a sign of a new phenomenon in the league: Bucmania.

Just two years ago, the Bucs appeared to be headed out of town because they couldn't get financing for a new stadium.

Even quarterback Trent Dilfer assumed they were leaving.

"I thought we were pretty close," he said. "I didn't know the full story, but from everything we heard, it seemed like we were going to move."

Things were so bad for the Bucs that they couldn't find anywhere to go. Baltimore, for example, spurned them for the Cleveland Browns, who had much more history and tradition.

In the past two years, though, everything has changed. The team eventually got the funding for a new stadium and the owners, the Malcolm Glazer family, who failed to get an expansion team in Baltimore, hired Dungy.

Dungy started 0-5 a year ago (as did Joe Gibbs in his first season), but finished 6-10, and now he has the club on the cusp of its first playoff spot since 1982.

The low-key Dungy didn't get too excited when the team started 5-0 or too depressed when it then lost three straight. But even he will admit that the Bucs are playing a big game Sunday.

The Green Bay Packers, looking very much like defending Super Bowl champions, come to town for a pivotal game. With the Packers at 10-3 and the Bucs at 9-4, they're fighting for the division title and a playoff bye.

"It will be a big game," Dungy said. "I've resisted that 'big game' tag all year, but I have said when you get to a point where you win one and you're in [the playoffs], it's a big game. So from that standpoint, it will be playing the Super Bowl champions. It will be a good battle for sure."

Meanwhile, the Bucs, long a laughingstock in the league, are no longer content under Dungy just to make the playoffs.

"I think the biggest thing Coach Dungy does is have very high expectations and he expects you to meet them," Dilfer said.

Dilfer leaves little doubt that the Super Bowl is one of those expectations.

"I wouldn't call us the favorite, but if we get hot in December, we have as good a chance as anybody," he said.

The Bucs, who lost, 21-16, at Green Bay in October, should find out Sunday if they can get hot.

Best in the rest

Broncos at Steelers: This key AFC game matches Terrell Davis and Denver's No. 1 rushing offense against a Pittsburgh rush defense that is No. 2 in the league. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, plans to run Jerome Bettis against a Denver rush defense ranked only 19th. The Steelers, whose pass defense is 22nd, have the challenge of facing John Elway. Coach Bill Cowher is so concerned that he closed practices to reporters because he plans to switch Carnell Lake back from cornerback to safety. Of course, the news leaked out, but it doesn't much matter if Elway knows who's going to be in the secondary. He has thrown against the best over the years.

Giants at Eagles: This will be a duel between two young quarterbacks, Bobby Hoying and Danny Kanell, taken on the third and fourth rounds, respectively, in the 1996 draft. Hoying is 2-0-1 after besting Boomer Esiason in a shootout last week and is a fan favorite in a city quick to glorify athletes and just as quick to tear them down. By contrast, Kanell has struggled in recent games and coach Jim Fassel is talking about going back to Dave Brown if Kanell gets off to a slow start. That means if the Eagles' defense can stymie Kanell for a half, Philadelphia should win the game, because it should have little trouble containing Brown.

Lions at Dolphins: ESPN got a good Sunday night matchup -- Barry Sanders' legs vs. Dan Marino's arm -- with a lot on the line. Miami is in a three-way tie for the AFC East lead at 8-5 lead, while Detroit, at 7-6, is still alive in the NFC wild-card race. Sanders, finally showing what he can do with a good coach designing an offense for him, has a shot at 2,000 yards. Jimmy Johnson also wants a big-time runner, so he has brought in problem-child Lawrence Phillips, although it's uncertain how much playing time he'll see. Johnson likes to think he can keep problem players under control with his disciplined approach. Phillips will be the ultimate test.

Worth a look

Patriots at Jaguars: This is a rematch of last year's AFC title game. Since they're both tied for their division leads this time, it's a pivotal game. Both teams struggled at home to win last week against losing teams. For the Patriots, wide receiver Terry Glenn is questionable with a hamstring injury. His absence -- he has caught only 27 passes after catching 90 last year -- has had a major effect on the Patriots' offense. The Jaguars, meanwhile, kept bogging down in the red zone against the Ravens last week and had to settle for five field goals.

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