They're In: Tampa Bay Clinches Playoff Berth

December 30 – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers clinched the No. 6 and final playoff spot in the NFC on Sunday when the Atlanta Falcons lost to the Miami Dolphins, 21-14. Three hours after the Dolphins downed the Falcons, the Pewter Pirates saw another piece of the playoff puzzle placed when the Philadelphia Eagles clinched the No. 3 playoff spot by defeating the New York Giants, 24-21. The Bucs will clash with the Eagles two consecutive weeks.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers secured a playoff spot for the third consecutive year and the fourth time in five seasons with their 22-10 win over the Ravens on Saturday night and by having the Miami Dolphins hold off the Atlanta Falcons, 21-14 on Sunday.

"It feels great to be in the playoffs," said Dungy. " I think it's a good year to be in. San Francisco lost today to Dallas. Miami played well and beat Atlanta. The Jets lost to Buffalo, who only had two wins. I think it's going to be that type of year, and hopefully it'll be that type of playoffs."

Although Atlanta was a long shot to make the playoffs after the Bucs downed the Ravens, they could have stayed alive with a win over the Dolphins on Sunday. But Miami held off a late comeback by Atlanta in the fourth quarter, and put themselves and Tampa Bay in the playoffs.

"We felt all along last night that if we won, we'd be in," said Dungy. "Even if Atlanta won, it was going to be a long shot for them to catch us on the point tiebreaker. We talked about it last night with the team. We're going to come back. We've got some things that we want to accomplish. We don't know what state of mind Philadelphia is going to be in depending on what happens. We are going to play the game (next week) to win."

After starting the season off at 3-4, the playoffs looked out of reach for the Bucs, but Dungy managed to keep his troops together and they clinched a playoff spot by going 6-2 in their last eight games.

"The thing I am most pleased with is that we are starting to play our best football at the most important time," said Bucs general manager Rich McKay. "If we continue to play as we have the last two weeks as we head into the playoffs, we should make it pretty interesting."

While critics had all but written off the Pewter Pirates after the Bucs were embarrassed by the Bears at Soldier Field three week ago, 27-3, the Bucs players insist they expected to be in the playoffs at the conclusion of the regular season. With one game left to play in the 2001 regular season, the Pewter Pirates are ahead of schedule.

"Expected," said Bucs DT Warren Sapp of Tampa Bay's playoff berth. "Four playoff appearances in six seasons under Tony Dungy. I sum it to one word. Expected."

While Tampa Bay has locked up the sixth and final seed in the NFC, the road to the Super Bowl will not go through Tampa. The Bucs will be on the road for the entire playoffs, and it will all start on Wild Card Weekend (Jan. 12, 13) at Philadelphia. Ironically, the Bucs met the Eagles (10-5) in the first round of the playoffs on New Year's Eve last season and the Pewter Pirates were dominated in a 21-3 loss to Philadelphia.

Tampa Bay is 0-3 on the road in the playoffs under Dungy, but they are cherishing the opportunity to avenge their playoff loss last year to Philadelphia. And believe it or not, facing the Eagles at home may not be such a bad thing this season. Philadelphia has posted just a 4-4 record at Veterans Stadium this season.

Both teams now face an intriguing dilemma before they meet each other in the playoffs in terms of how they will approach their game against one another on Sunday, Jan. 6 at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs and Eagles will meet two consecutive weeks, and both teams will likely use Sunday night's game at Ray-Jay as an opportunity to rest players before making their playoff runs.

"I think it will help us in terms of guys that are a little bit banged up," said Dungy. "We won't feel the urgency to have to practice them. We won't have to play guys that aren't a hundred percent. In that sense, it is going to be good for us. You look at the scores today, people playing at home that need the game to secure a playoff spot or need the game to gain home field advantage and they're not having an easy time. This may be the year that it's not a curse to be on the road."

But both teams want to go into post-season with momentum. While the outcome of Sunday night's game will not mean much on paper, it could do a lot in terms of building confidence for their next meeting.

"The thing we want to do is keep our momentum going," said Dungy. "And we still have some goals that we'd like to accomplish. We'd like to get our 10th win, we'd like to keep our home winning streak going. Certainly, the playoffs are the most important thing, so you're probably not going to play people that are banged up, but our healthy guys will play and it's a game we want to win. We'll see what happens in the late game and see where it leads, but right now that's our thought process, to keep our momentum going and play well."

Now that they're in the playoffs, Tampa Bay feels like anything can happen.

"We are just glad to be in the playoffs," said Bucs WR Keyshawn Johnson. "Hopefully we can be that tough sixth seed that nobody wants to play. I have said all year that if we get in the playoffs, we are going to be one tough team to beat."


NOTE=All Six Teams Have Cliched Playoff Berths.


NFC West: 1. *St. Louis Rams (13-2)


NFC Central: 2. *Chicago Bears (12-3)


NFC East: 3. Philadelphia Eagles (10-5)

@ Tampa Bay (9-6)


4.*Green Bay Packers (12-3)

@ NY Giants (7-8)

5. *San Francisco 49ers (11-4)

@ New Orleans (7-8)

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-6)


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