Reminiscent of the Ravens' Super Bowl run two years ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are winging toward the playoffs on defense and a prayer.
Is it enough to get them to San Diego for the 37th Super Bowl?
If their defense can deliver home-field advantage in the NFC, it might be. But the prayer comes in if the Bucs are forced into a road playoff game. They are 0-6 in postseason road games in their 27-year history and haven't scored a touchdown in the last three.
That's why first-year Bucs coach Jon Gruden has been laboring to break down mind-sets and stereotypes as the playoffs approach.
"There is a perception around here that we are going to curl up in a fetal position and die if we have to play a road playoff game," Gruden said in a news conference this week. "I say hogwash. Hell, we're in the playoffs. I saw the Ravens close range do it three consecutive weeks, did it to me, did it to us at a previous employment [with Oakland], and rally on to win the Super Bowl."
Never mind that the Ravens won two road games to reach the Super Bowl; when you're trying to make history, sometimes you have to change it.
The Ravens serve as inspiration in more than this for Tampa Bay. Like Baltimore's offense of 2000, the Bucs' is seriously limited. Quarterback Brad Johnson overcomes a haggard running game with his savvy and proficient short passing game. But the Bucs are tied for 21st in total yards, just five slots up from last year's ranking under then-coach Tony Dungy.
Just like the Ravens in 2000, the Bucs dominate games with a suffocating defense. Built on speed, even in the defensive line, they have allowed the fewest points, first downs and total yards in the NFL. They also lead the league in interceptions with 27.
But defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin doesn't want to compare his defense to the Ravens of 2000. "They won the Super Bowl and were awesome in the playoffs. We haven't won anything yet," he said.
The 11-3 Bucs can clinch their fourth-ever division title by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night in Tampa. They can clinch a first-round bye with a win over Pittsburgh and a Green Bay loss to Buffalo.
But they'll need to win their final two games, coupled with a loss by Philadelphia, to wrestle home-field advantage from the Eagles, also 11-3.
Faced with those prospects, the Bucs have refrained from indulging the Steelers in a war of words, except for defensive tackle Warren Sapp. Pittsburgh safety Lee Flowers belittled the Bucs after a 17-10 win a year ago.
"Right now we are playing at a very classic level and we want to finish what we started," Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice said. "Everyone here understands the ramifications of not just winning, but the circumstances of this game."
Kiffin is the maestro who controls this defense like never before. Gruden has allowed Kiffin more freedom in calling defenses. One result of that is that the Bucs play more man-to-man pass coverage and less two-deep zone in the secondary.
With a pass rush that has registered 40 sacks, the Bucs are holding opposing quarterbacks to a collective completion percentage of 49.9. They have held a league-high five teams under 200 yards total offense, including the Ravens in Week 2.
"We have a lot of team speed and some good veteran leaders," Kiffin said. "Probably three players who have stepped up this year who are not core players are free safety Dexter Jackson, second-year cornerback Brian Kelly and middle linebacker Sheldon Quarles."
Kelly is tied for the league lead with six interceptions, Jackson has three and Quarles leads the team in tackles in his first year in the middle after two years at strong-side linebacker.
It's the four players who were named to the NFC Pro Bowl squad yesterday who draw most of the attention - Rice, Sapp, safety John Lynch and linebacker Derrick Brooks.
Rice, who leads the NFC with 14 1/2 sacks, and Brooks, who is the only linebacker in league history with three interception returns for touchdowns in one season, are having Defensive Player of the Year-type years. And Sapp has rebounded from shoulder problems to collect 7 1/2 sacks and lead the league in trash talk.
The Bucs have rebounded, too, from two sub-par defensive seasons. They were ninth in total defense in 2000 and sixth last season.
"Our standards are pretty high," Kiffin said. "Last year Brooks was hurt a lot and Sapp hurt his shoulder. Those guys are healthy this year."
Losing underrated defensive tackle Anthony McFarland for the rest of the year to a fractured foot won't help. The Detroit Lions rushed for 144 yards last week, when McFarland got hurt.
Still, the Bucs expect to succeed. Said Rice of Monday night's game: "I think we are going to go out there and earn our respect."