Redskins hoping to Buc a trend

But history is on side of NFC team with bye by gaping 17-1 margin

January 15, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. -- When the NFL playoffs started, Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp said, "I pity the fool who has to come in here and play us. We'll be sitting here waiting."

The waiting ends today for the Buccaneers when the Washington Redskins arrive in town for their divisional playoff game.

It might be easy to brush off Sapp's comment as typical of the flamboyant defensive lineman, who likes to say, "My goal is to become the first bust with braids in the Pro Football Hall of Fame."

Sapp talks that way all the time.

"My mouth equals my play," said the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year. "I'm comfortable being the center of attention. I covet it. It ain't that tough to deal with. I really like it."

Sapp's comment about pitying their first-round foe may not be just bluster, though. It may reflect the thinking of his teammates.

They know that getting a first-round bye in this decade is virtually a ticket to the NFC title game.

Even their low-key coach, Tony Dungy, admitted he stressed to his team at the end of the season the importance of getting the first-round bye.

"We're aware of that. As a matter of fact, I made that point to the team when we were going to Chicago [for the season finale] and we had to win to secure that bye. You do get a competitive advantage by the way the thing is set up if you get that bye.

"I think the AFC is 13-5 and the NFC is 17-1. There's something to be said for getting rest, but the fact remains you still have to be out there and play and win. It's not a guarantee. It just gives you an advantage and you've got to take advantage of that," he said.

The bye became more important in 1990 when the NFL added a sixth team to the playoffs.

In the old system, all three division winners had a bye and the two wild-card teams played in the first round.

By adding a sixth team, the third division winner was thrown into the wild-card round and the two division winners with the best records got an edge with the byes.

Dungy's math was correct. In the nine years this system has been in place, the two NFC teams with the byes have posted a 17-1 record and played each other in the conference title game eight times. The only bye team to lose was San Francisco to Green Bay in 1995.

One problem for the third division winner is the possibility of an injury while playing in the wild-card round.

That is what happened to Washington last week when Stephen Davis suffered a knee injury after 15 carries against Detroit.

Although Davis, who went into the Lions' game with an ankle injury, saw action for a few plays in practice Thursday and probably will start, the Redskins don't know how long he'll last.

Under the old system, Washington would have had a bye last week and Davis would have had two weeks to rest.

A similar fate happened to Pittsburgh in 1996 when it was going for a second straight Super Bowl appearance as the third division winner. The Steelers routed Indianapolis, 42-14, in the wild-card game, but Jerome Bettis was injured in the process. With Bettis ailing, they lost at New England, 28-3, the following week.

The Redskins are doing their best to ignore all this history.

Wide receiver Michael Westbrook said, "It's definitely an advantage for the team at home, but I don't buy into that history stuff. I think we'll play our best game."

Even if Davis plays the whole game, the Redskins may be overmatched.

They beat only one team all year with a winning record and that was Miami in the season finale in a meaningless game when both teams pulled their quarterback at halftime.

The showcase of the game will be the matchup of Tampa's defense that is rated third in yardage allowed against the Washington offense ranked second in yardage gained.

If Davis is forced out and his replacement, Skip Hicks, isn't effective, Brad Johnson will have to try to win the game in the air.

That means the battered Washington line, which will be missing Andy Heck and have an ailing Cory Raymer at center, will have to block the Bucs' blitzes and give Johnson time to throw.

Westbrook thinks he can get open if Johnson has time to throw.

"Their secondary to me is average. Their defensive line makes them look good," he said.

When Tampa Bay has the ball, there won't be much strategy involved. The Bucs will simply try to pound the ball with Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott against a Washington defense ranked 30th in the league. The Bucs are ranked 28th in offensive yardage, but are 15th rushing and 30th passing.

As Redskins defensive lineman Kenard Lang said, "They'll run it on third-and-15."

If the Redskins defense puts on a poor showing, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's job could be on the line.

Although owner Daniel Snyder has said that making the playoffs saved coach Norv Turner's job this year, Nolan's status remains up in the air. He's faced criticism all year because of the shaky play of the defense.

Turner said after last week's game that the question about Nolan's status was "inappropriate."

But Nolan knows it'll be appropriate if the Redskins lose today.

"If we're sitting here in a losing losing room, you'll say, `Are you going to keep your job or are you going?' Hopefully, we'll win so you don't have to ask me," Nolan said.

His defense's best shot will be to try to rattle Shaun King, who's attempting to become the first rookie quarterback since Pat Haden in 1976 to win a playoff game.

But the Bucs try to protect King by stressing the running game.

"Beating us is not going to be just rattling Shaun King. People who have played us know that. They've got to handle our running game and handle what we dish out [defensively]," Dungy said.

If history is any judge, the Redskins won't be able to handle that against a bye team.

NFL playoffs

Divisional round

Today's games

Miami (10-7) at Jacksonville (14-2), 12: 35 p.m., chs. 13, 9

Washington (11-6) at Tampa Bay (11-5), 4: 15 p.m., chs. 45, 5

Tomorrow's games

Minnesota (11-6) at St. Louis (13-3), 12: 35 p.m., chs. 45, 5

Tennessee (14-3) at Indianapolis (13-3), 4: 05 p.m., chs. 13, 9

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