Sometimes silence can be the loudest noise of all.
Anyone watching the NFL had the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dead and buried, roses on the grave after the fifth week of the 2004 season. No hope, Gruden must go, Brad Johnson must go, there's no running game, etc., etc.
Something funny happened on the way to the graveyard. The Bucs went on a winning streak. With four wins in five games, the Bucs are clinging to a playoff opportunity. Of course they'll have to run the table in a weak NFC, but the schedule sets up nicely for them with only two difficult games – Atlanta at home on Dec. 5, and a trip to upstart San Diego the following week, but as coach Jon Gruden continues to emphasize, the only game that matters is the one this weekend, and it just happens to be against the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers have been decimated more by injuries than any team in the NFL this season, but they've improved to 3-7 and are coming off of back-to-back wins. They've been so beaten up that they are on their sixth starting running back this season, Casey Cramer, who was signed off the Tennessee Titans practice squad.
Still, the Bucs know they have no room for error and, even though Carolina is out of the playoff picture, there's always been some bad blood between the two teams who will also meet later this year in Tampa.
"I think just because over the past couple of years, we have had a lot of close games and a lot of hard fought battles,'' Bucs tight end Ken Dilger said, describing the growing animosity. "Two years ago we were trying to make it to the Super Bowl and we beat them twice. Last year they went to the Super Bowl and beat us twice. It is always a battle, no matter what the records are and how well you are playing.''
Gruden gave his player a Thanksgiving break on Thursday, letting his players spend time with the families, but the work day started at 6 a.m. Friday and Gruden said he was impressed by the practice.
"It was all really business and I was really impressed by it,'' Gruden said.
To win on Sunday, the Bucs must maintain the consistency that has won four of the past five games, and ditch the inconsistency that lost a key game to Atlanta two weeks ago. Brian Griese has been a Godsend at quarterback, but he's had a lot of help from his receiving corps. Michael Clayton has clearly established himself as the league's top rookie receiver and with Joey Galloway back in the lineup, it allows Clayton even more room underneath. Galloway provides the deep threat the Bucs have lacked since, well, since their inception. Joe Jurevicius asked for more touches and he got them in Sunday's romp over San Francisco.
Griese tossed two interceptions against the 49ers last week, but he isn't phased a bit.
"Interceptions are going to happen,'' Griese said. "You don't want them to happen, but you throw it and there's really nothing you can do about it after it's over with except come out in the next series and let your team know that you've put it behind you and go out and score some touchdowns.''
On defense, nose tackle Anthony McFarland is gone for the season, but that shouldn't be an issue on Sunday since the Panthers don't have anybody who can penetrate the Bucs defensive line.
After a September in which the Bucs caught every bad break possible, they are finally starting to get some of their own.
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