I was stunned that none of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the Pro Bowl. Not overwhelmingly stunned. Just stunned. The Bucs have placed at least one person on the team with metronomic consistency for the past 12 years.
Surely linebacker Barrett Ruud merited a nod, right? The guy's had a tremendous year.
It's not to say there won't be a Buc in Hawaii in February. Derrick Brooks got in through the back door last year, thanks to an injury. It could happen.
But maybe it's fitting that it didn't happen. The Pro Bowl is about statistics and popularity, neither of which the Bucs have abundance.
But they do have wins, nine in all. They do have a playoff berth and a home playoff game.
They do have something to play for beyond the end of this month.
"That's all right with us," quarterback Jeff Garcia said. "That's the fuel that ignites the fire."
This'll sound corny, so I'll warn you right now. But statistics and superstars haven't been this team's M.O. all season. It's been the team concept in which everyone contributes and no player is bigger than the other 52.
That's not great for newspaper copy. Admittedly, we love it when Terrell Owens goes off or Simeon Rice says something that makes no sense because it writes our story for us. We're lazy and focusing on one guy, instead of talking to all 53, gets us to the company-paid meal a little sooner.
But team is what it's all about for this group. There are guys that have played at a Pro Bowl level. There are guys that deserve it. But they'll never get the nod.
And that's all right with these guys.
Why? Well … this team is emboldened by an insane number of unknowns, benchwarmers and third-stringers that have suddenly become household names (at least in these parts).
Earnest Graham? On his way to 1,000 yards rushing.
Donald Penn? Yeoman's work in place of Luke Petitgout at left tackle.
Greg White? Tied a team record with seven forced fumbles this season. Here's a question — does he still get his Best Buy employee discount?
Jovan Haye? More like "Jovan Who" in July. Now Jovan "Can't live without him" in December.
Gruden must look around sometimes, mystified by what has transpired. I'm certainly perplexed. I pegged this team for six wins.
From worst to first to worst to first. How many teams have done that? With this cast of characters, many of whom have done at least some time on the Island of Misfit Football Players?
The Bucs will gladly bypass the rubber chicken banquet dinner and the week-long vacation in paradise if, somehow, they end up in Arizona next month.
That's not necessarily a stretch if you play for a team for which team isn't just a word.
Corny. I warned you. Now the preview.
This would seem to be a perfect "trap" game. The Bucs have nothing to play for but playoff seeding. The Bucs are trying to balance getting veterans some rest and staying sharp for their playoff game. QB Jeff Garcia didn't look great last week, but looked good enough. Even he admitted he needed to shake some rust off. And, the Bucs are playing on the West Coast, where they are just plain horrible. Oh, and Joey Galloway was non-existent, mostly due to a productive running game.
The Bucs are now at their best when they're able to run the football effectively behind an offensive line that, while young, is brimming with confidence. The run game really stepped up in Garcia's two-game absence, and that will only help the Bucs' ability to use the run game in play action and in bootlegs down the line.
This week, the 49ers are a wounded team. But defensively they're stronger than you think. Their rankings aren't great (they're 23rd in the NFL in total defense), but I think a good part of that is due to the 49ers offense, which is dead last in the NFL. They're also dead last in time of possession, as they hang onto the football for just 27 minutes per game. That means they leave their defense out on the field way too long, leading to the unit wearing down quicker.
The Buccaneers can use that to their advantage if their own defense keeps the 49ers from putting together consistent drives. That's what happened to the Falcons last week, who couldn't convert a third down. Their own solid defense simply wore down.
The unit itself uses exotic blitz schemes and plenty of formations, so Garcia will need to be quick to recognize those changes and quick to get rid of the ball when the 49ers blitz — and they will. They're 25th in the league in sacks and are having a difficult time sustaining a rush out of their front line. So a blitz is key to their success.
Overall, I think the Bucs have to stick with the run early and often, control the clock and give Garcia plenty of time to use play action to get down the field. This is the formula that has worked for this team so many times this season. The 49ers have nothing left to play for, so establishing the game plan early in the game, as the Bucs did last week, is key to success.
OTHER POINTS TO PONDER
MILESTONERS: It's not out of the realm of possibility for three Bucs to achieve season milestones this weekend. WR Joey Galloway is just 15 yards away from his third straight 1,000-yard season. RB Earnest Graham needs 123 yards to earn his first 1,000-yard rushing season. And DE Greg White needs two sacks to achieve his first 10-sack season. You debate which one is the most surprising milestone.
PLAYOFF RACE: Right now, the Bucs would host the Giants in the Wild Card round. But don't ignore what's happening around the league. Their opponent could be the Giants, the Vikings, the Saints or — heaven forbid — the Redskins. The Giants (9-5) are at Buffalo, and that will be no picnic for the Giants. Minnesota (8-6) hosts Washington (7-7), and that's the key game. The Vikings can pretty much eliminate the Redskins with a win, while the Redskins need a win to put itself back into the race. New Orleans (7-7) hosts Philadelphia and the Eagles are coming off a nice win over Dallas.
Wouldn't it be a kick if the Bucs managed the No. 3 seed and STILL ended up playing the Giants? It could happen, so keep an eye out.
BUCS FB BYRON STORER VS. 49ERS MLB PATRICK WILLIS: Willis, a rookie, just earned his first Pro Bowl nod and he definitely deserves it. This guy should be the cornerstone for the 49ers defense for years to come. He fills the hole well, so expect him to run into Storer a lot on Sunday as he tries to pave the way for Earnest Graham's attempt at a 1,000-yard season. B.J. Askew did not travel to San Fran, so Storer gets the start.
BUCS WR JOEY GALLOWAY VS. 49ERS CB NATE CLEMENTS: The 49ers threw a whole lot of money at this guy in the offseason ($80 million!) and he's had a solid season. He was in Buffalo and when the Bills met the Bucs in 2005 they held Galloway without a catch. Interesting.
BUCS QB JEFF GARCIA VS. 49ERS UT BRYANT YOUNG: Young may be playing his final game at home for the 49ers and he'd love nothing better than to sack his old teammate, Garcia. Young leads the team in sacks with six, so Garcia will need to be aware of where he is, especially when he's on the move.
I make five offensive predictions each week. Check back on Monday to see if I'm right.
1. Tampa Bay will rush for 135 yards or more on Sunday. I'm feeling greedy now, I admit. But the Bucs know they have to run the ball successfully to win and Gruden is finally committed to it. Nothing helps an offensive line over jet lag like 45 carries, right?
2. Jeff Garcia will not throw an interception or commit a fumble. This is his homecoming game — forget what happened in Detroit. He'll be emotional, but the game plan won't allow him to make too many mistakes.
3. The Bucs will hold the 49ers without a sack. That's not a reach, I think. This group has produced 26 sacks this season but these linemen are performing well in pass protection. I think the only pressure they'll produce is with an all-out blitz.
4. Joey Galloway will have a rebound day. Just one catch last week was a surprise. A big surprise. I think he'll bounce back this week. Remember two years ago when he was a Pro Bowl snub (and that year he really deserved it)? He came out and caught eight passes for 97 yards the following game. Motivation? You bet.
San Francisco RB Frank Gore put it simply on Wednesday. The 49ers haven't gotten consistent play at the quarterback position this season and that's held the offense back.
The 49ers are dead last offensively in total yards and passing offense as a result. Their time of possession, as mentioned earlier, is also dead last. Gore has done his best, and he has 919 yards rushing, but he can't do it alone.
The past couple of games, QB Shaun Hill has ridden in on a white horse — or maybe off-white. He's been above efficient the past two games for the 49ers.
Maybe this statistic encapsulates Hill's sudden impact. The 49ers' percentage on third-down conversions (16 of 27) in the six quarters since Shaun Hill has played quarterback. Up to that point, the 49ers converted just 27.3 percent.
Remember that, at times this season, the Bucs defense has had trouble getting off the field on third down. It happened as recently as Houston two weeks ago. Third-down defense will be the key to the game, frankly. If the Bucs allow the inexperienced signal-caller to convert a few third downs and get some confidence, it could be a long afternoon for the Bucs.
Gore won't be easy to stop either. But if the 49ers are able to throw consistently, Gore could have a big day. The 49ers are playing an offense closer to the West Coast heyday than ever before. So the employment of multiple receivers and shorter passing routes could put the Bucs in a lot more nickel and dime sets and force the front four to put pressure on Hill on their own. Hill has been sacked four times so far.
The Bucs can counteract this by stopping Gore and putting the game in Hill's hands. Sounds strange. But you always want to put the game in the hands of the least-experienced player, and that's Hill. A stymied run game, plus the Bucs' ability to disguise coverages could put Hill on the defensive. Give him fewer options and he may try to force passes he shouldn't, which could lead to turnovers.
OTHER POINTS TO PONDER
TURNOVERS: The Bucs are now 4th in turnover margin with a plus-14. They forced four last week. They're doing a great job this year of taking advantage of inexperienced quarterbacks.
VERNON WATCH: TE Vernon Davis spent part of the season injured, but he now has as many receptions (47) as leading receiver Arnaz Battle (47). All this guy really has to do next year is stay healthy and get some consistent quarterback play and he could be the next Antonio Gates. He could have a huge 2008. The Bucs will need to account for him.
49ERS RB FRANK GORE VS. BUCS MLB BARRETT RUUD: Gore is closing in on 1,000 yards and a very tough runner inside. Ruud is coming off a Pro Bowl snub. He may want to take it out on Gore.
49ERS LT ADAM SNYDER VS. BUCS RE GREG WHITE: White only plays on passing downs, but Snyder is going to have his hands full. There is no defender on the team right now that has White's presence on the pass rush and timing in forcing turnovers.
49ERS WR DARRELL JACKSON VS. BUCS CB RONDE BARBER: I've never been a big Jackson fan and the 49ers QB situation has stunted his numbers. Barber is a physical corner and I'm not sure Jackson can handle that.
1. Frank Gore will rush for at least 81 yards. That's what he needs for 1,000 yards. He's the 49ers best offensive weapon and they won't ignore trying to establish him.
2. Shaun Hill will take a step back. Hill's last two appearances have come against sloppy defenses. The Bucs are one of the league's top units now. Let's see how the youngster does. I see at least two interceptions and perhaps a fumble.
3. The 49ers offensive line will struggle in pass protection. The unit has given up 48 sacks this season. The Bucs may end up with at least three sacks on Sunday. I expect the pressure to be consistent.
4. The 49ers third-down conversion rate will go down. I mentioned earlier Hill's third-down conversion rate for the 49ers. That's going down this week, probably under 45 percent. The Bucs may have put their third-down woes behind him.
5. Arnaz Battle will have one long catch. He'll get behind the Bucs for at least one catch of 30 years.
I keep telling myself the Bucs are 1-10 in San Francisco and haven't won there in 27 years. But the 49ers are so bad this year that this may be the Bucs' best chance yet to win in San Francisco. They need this win for seeding purposes, so it's still an important game. I have to believe that the Bucs are finally going to break the hex. If they don't this weekend, they never will. Bucs 30, 49ers 13.
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.