A LOOK INSIDE THE CAMPS
Quarterback Chris Simms used to be a gunslinger, but now he squeezes the trigger with more accuracy.
The Bucs have gone 4-1 in their last five games, the same as Simms' touchdown to interception ratio during that stretch. In fact, he has thrown one pick in his last 126 passing attempts.
Against the Panthers, Simms completed 20 of 27 passes for 138 yards and had four passes dropped. He passed for 123 yards in a win against the Saints and 119 yards in a victory at Atlanta. Trading big numbers for W's is what quarterbacking in the NFL is all about.
"The frantic guy we saw against San Francisco, some of the uncertainty we saw against Carolina the first time, is beginning to dissipate," quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett said. "It's beginning to go off to the side. That doesn't mean it won't rear its head once in awhile, but I think what we're seeing is a guy more comfortable in his role now.
"I don't think you can underestimate the atmosphere that a young guy gets put into. And he's now had three full years. And what Brad Johnson is doing now in Minnesota, Chris saw that. He saw how Brad managed things. Brian is different than Brad. Chris is different from Brian. But he's had the summation of the experiences."
It's no coincidence that Simms' improvement parallels that of the Bucs' running game, which has averaged 111 yards during the last five games.
"He's done a good job," Gruden said. "Let's give him credit on his decision-making. Sometimes the best play you can make is to throw the ball away. You hate to admit that as a coach sometimes, but he's done a good job of that. He's been resourceful (with) his audibles. He's throwing the ball a bit earlier, with better anticipation. We've run the ball better, to be honest with you, and we run the ball more."
As proof of the high standards he sets for himself and his team, quarterback Tom Brady earlier this season talked about how he wanted the Patriots' offense - which wasn't too shabby to begin with - to rise to the level that the Colts and Chiefs had consistently reached over the past few years.
In one sense, the Patriots, who host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday, are headed in the right direction.
Kansas City has the third-best time of possession average in the NFL at 32 minutes, 7 seconds. Indianapolis is eighth at 31:02. The Patriots are only 20th (29:44), but they have improved dramatically over the past two weeks. In beating the Jets and Bills, the Patriots held the ball for 38:10 and 41:59, respectively. Those were their two best totals of the season, and the latter number represented the Pats' best ball-hogging effort since Bill Belichick became coach in 2000.
The Patriots have won the clock lately by winning third down. Over the past two weeks, they have converted 19 of their 32 chances (59.4 percent) while holding their opponents to 25 percent (6-for-24). That's been a big boost for the defense, which has been on the field for an average of only 48 plays the past two games, compared to 66 over the first 11.
The Patriots' bid for a third straight week of clock killing could be hampered by two factors - the Bucs' own success on third down, and Brady's shin injury.
Tampa, which is No. 7 in the league in third-down defense and No. 16 in third-down offense, is coming off a dominating effort at Carolina. The Bucs cashed in on 10 of 17 chances and held the Panthers to 2 of 11.
As for Brady, who took a blow to his lower left leg on a 3-yard touchdown run in last week's win at Buffalo, he remained questionable on Thursday's injury report. Brady, who has started 84 consecutive games, including playoffs, is determined to be in the lineup on Saturday, and most observers feel that he will start as long as the injury doesn't hamper his mobility too much. He was jogging without a noticeable limp before Thursday's practice.
Should Brady have to sit out, 43-year-old backup Doug Flutie would make his first start for the Patriots since 1989.
"I'm just getting ready to play, the same as I always have," Flutie said. "There's a possibility (of playing) every week. I'm treating this week no differently than any other week - just throw with my scout team, throw the ball around a little bit and prepare to watch film and prepare to be ready, just in case."