PREVIEW: Buccaneers (9-4) @ Patriots (8-5)

The New England Patriots (8-5) host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-4) in a game with payoff implications for both teams. The Patriots can clinch the AFC East with a win or a Miami Dolphins loss, while Tampa Bay can keep pace with the Panthers (9-4) and stay a game ahead of the Falcons (8-5) Here is a snapshot of the game, the matchups, the gameplans and some injury issues to keep an eye on.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-4) at New England Patriots (8-5)

KICKOFF: Saturday, 1:30 ET
GAMEDATE: 12/17/05
SURFACE: Grass
TV: FOX, Dick Stockton, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa

SERIES: Sixth meeting. New England leads the series 3-2, but Tampa Bay has won the last two meetings. The Bucs won 21-16 to open the 2000 season in New England. The Bucs also won 27-7 in Tampa in 1997. Coach Jon Gruden has not played in New England since the infamous "Tuck Rule" game during the 2001 AFC playoffs between Gruden's Raiders and the Patriots.

2005 RANKINGS: Bucs: offense 24th (16th rush, 25th pass); defense 2nd (5th rush, 4th pass). Patriots: offense 5th (22nd rush, 2nd pass); defense 29th (11th rush, 31st pass)

PREDICTION: Patriots 20-17

KEYS TO THE GAME: All eyes will be on Patriots QB Tom Brady, who was listed on the injury report with shoulder and shin injuries. While he's expected to play, getting Brady's true status out of the super-secretive Bill Belichick is virtually impossible. One certainty is RB Corey Dillon is back to health and providing the balance the offense desperately needs. Look for the Patriots to attack the middle of the Bucs defense with NT Anthony McFarland out. Tampa Bay hasn't traditionally been very good in cold weather games, but it does have a solid running game and a quarterback in Chris Simms who enters the game with a career-best streak of 83 passes since his last interception. Expect the Bucs to play plenty of two tight-end formations to discourage the Patriots from blitzing at will, but Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden will also use motion in an attempt to exploit New England's weak secondary.

FAST FACTS: Teams have combined to win the past four Super Bowls. Bucs: Seek to tie franchise record with sixth road victory. ... RB Carnell Williams needs 76 rushing yards to join Errict Rhett (1,011, 1994) as the only rookies in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards. Patriots: Brady is 14-0 in games played in 35 degrees or below. ... Have won their past nine games dating back to 1971 played in snowstorms. ... Clinch the AFC East title with a win or Miami loss.

PERSONNEL NEWS

Bucs:
--DT Anthony McFarland did not practice Thursday and is listed as doubtful for Saturday's game against the Patriots.
--PK Matt Bryant did not kick in practice Thursday and is probable for Saturday's game at New England. Bryant's status will be a game-time decision.
--PK Todd France handled the kickoff duties in practice Friday.
--DT Ellis Wyms took snaps with the first team at under tackle. Wyms is expected to get his first NFL start Saturday at New England.
--LB Marquis Cooper (chest) was limited in practice Thursday and is questionable for Saturday's game at New England.

Patriots:
--CB Asante Samuel returned to practice Thursday after not being on the field for the portion of Wednesday's practice that was open to the media. Samuel remains questionable on the injury report with an unspecified "infection."
--The Patriots' four running backs - TB Corey Dillon, backup Kevin Faulk and FBs Patrick Pass and Heath Evans - all practiced Wednesday and Thursday, although all are still listed questionable for Saturday's game. At least two of the backs have been inactive for every game since Evans signed with the team on Nov. 1.
--Rookie LT Nick Kaczur was back at practice this week after sitting out last Sunday's game in Buffalo with a sore shoulder. It's unclear whether Kaczur will return to the lineup against Tampa Bay. He is listed as questionable on the injury report.
--WR Deion Branch's two highest yards-per-catch averages of the season have come against Buffalo - 30.7 yards in Week 8 and 16.6 yards last week. For the season, Branch is averaging 12.6 yards per catch.
--K Adam Vinatieri's has converted 77.3 percent of his field-goal attempts this season (17 of 22). That would be the third-lowest percentage of his 10-year career.
--The Buccaneers are the only NFL team against which QB Tom Brady has not started a game. Brady is 24-6 when starting against a team for the first time. The only teams Brady hasn't beaten are the Bucs, Redskins and Packers.
--LB Mike Vrabel continues to lead the team in tackles with 96. That total is 20 more than his previous career high, set last season.

BUCCANEERS

GAME PLAN:
This will be a great chess match between Bucs coach Jon Gruden and Pats coach Bill Belichick.

Gruden is a master of offense with multiple formations and shifts. Belichick is a defensive savant.

"You can prepare all you want for what you see, and the chances are that you're going to get something that you haven't seen," Gruden said. "You're going to get maximum pressures and maximum zones all in the same series. They're going to play extremely hard. The New England Patriots are now playing extremely hard. You're in for one hell of a day of football, and you'd better be ready to go."

The Bucs will try to keep it simple. Over the past few weeks, they've settled into mostly a two-tight end formations designed to dissuade teams from blitzing and enhance a running game behind Cadillac Williams. It gives QB Chris Simms fewer reads, but the downside is fewer receivers are available.

Defensively, the Bucs have gone back to their Tampa Two roots. But QB Tom Brady is a zone killer, so Tampa Bay must mix it up to get pressure.

"He's just got great command," Gruden said of Brady. "I think that's the greatest compliment I could give him. Sure, he has talent, he has great accuracy, functional mobility, he's tough. But he's in control of the whole show. He's a beautiful thing to watch. He's in great rhythm, his mechanics are flawless. He's just a great performer and rallies the team. He's the man."

New England is on a roll, having won its last two games convincingly. Brady is hobbled by a leg injury, but the Pats are getting healthy. RB Corey Dillon rushed for more than 100 yards last week against Buffalo.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. Bucs CB Ronde Barber. Brady is a master at punching holes in a zone defense, which is Tampa Bay's forte. Barber is hot, with four interceptions and a sack in his last two games.

--Bucs RB Cadillac Williams vs. Pats LB Tedy Bruschi. Williams is on a roll, rushing for more than 400 yards in his last four games. But the Pats defense has played much better against the run with the return of Bruschi, allowing a total of just 55 rushing yards in the last two games.

--Bucs QB Chris Simms vs. Pats coach Bill Belichick. Simms is playing mistake-free football, with four touchdowns and one interception in his last five games. But Belichick is the master of confusing opposing quarterbacks, especially inexperienced ones.

INJURY IMPACT:
DT Anthony McFarland is doubtful with a hamstring strain that forced him to leave the game in the first quarter at Carolina last week. McFarland has missed 17 games in the last three seasons, including playoffs, prior to 2005. The good news is the Bucs were able to stop a quality opponent with McFarland sidelined. DT Ellis Wyms and rookie Anthony Bryant will fill in for McFarland. PK Matt Bryant is probable, but the Bucs have kept Todd France on the roster as a precaution.

PATRIOTS

GAME PLAN:
With RBs Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk healthy again, the Patriots last week returned to the balanced offense that served them so well last season. They had 41 runs (a season high) and 40 passes in beating the Bills. Establishing Dillon on the ground is key for setting up play action, which QB Tom Brady sells as well as anyone and which can slow down an opponent's pass rush. With all three remaining games to be played in the frigid Northeast (two at home), the Patriots know this is the time they must get their running game in gear. However, that won't be easy to do against Tampa Bay's fifth-ranked run defense.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Patriots LT Nick Kaczur or Tom Ashworth vs. Bucs RDE Simeon Rice. The Patriots' left tackle spot is in flux, although Kaczur (shoulder) was well enough to practice on Wednesday. Rice has a team-high nine sacks, and with QB Tom Brady's mobility potentially limited by a left shin injury that might keep him out of the game altogether, the Patriots will have to keep close tabs on Rice.

--Patriots CB Ellis Hobbs vs. Bucs WR Joey Galloway. The Bucs like to move their offensive pieces around, and the Patriots don't flip-flop their corners, so there's no guarantee Hobbs would be locked up on Galloway. Still, it would be interesting to see how Hobbs, a promising 5-foot-9 rookie, would fare against the 11-year veteran, who is having a terrific season.

INJURY IMPACT
Losing QB Tom Brady (shin) would be a stunning blow, forcing 43-year-old backup Doug Flutie to make only his seventh start since the beginning of the 2002 season. The Patriots will keep their fingers crossed that Brady's leg responds to treatment this week. If CB Asante Samuel's "infection" were not to clear up, nickel back Hank Poteat or cornerback-turned-safety Artrell Hawkins likely would get the nod.

 


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