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 a while, 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 past five games.
"He's done a good job," head coach Jon 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."
--DT Anthony McFarland (hamstring strain) did not practice Thursday and is listed as doubtful for Saturday's game against the Patriots.
--PK Matt Bryant (hamstring) 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 Thursday.
--DT Ellis Wyms took snaps with the first team at under tackle Thursday. 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.
The Vikings' preparations for Sunday's game against Pittsburgh were interrupted Thursday as charges were handed down against four players involved in the now infamous boat party on Lake Minnetonka in October.
Quarterback Daunte Culpepper, running back Moe Williams, cornerback Fred Smoot and left tackle Bryant McKinnie were charged with misdemeanors alleging lewd or indecent conduct. Culpepper and Williams are both out for the season because of knee injuries.
The players each were charged with one count of indecent conduct, one count of disorderly conduct and one count of lewd and lascivious conduct. All are misdemeanor charges.
"We've been down this road with other players before, and I'll just let you know, as it pertains to any type of punishment or this or that, according to NFL rules and union contracts, there is a big difference between allegations, charges and convictions," coach Mike Tice said. "So until at any point there is a conviction of any type, if there is, I have no actions to take and nothing to say."
The maximum penalty on each charge is 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine. The players are set to make court appearances on Jan. 5. Hennepin County Sheriff Patrick McGowan said the investigation from the Oct. 6 party identified 30 Vikings as being on the two boats. There were about 90 people present.
According to the complaints, various sexual acts took place between the players who have been charged and unidentified women on the boats owned by Al and Alma's Supper Club and Charter Cruises. That company's attorney said the acts were done in front of Al and Alma's employees and that some feared for their safety.
--P Chris Kluwe (sprained right knee) punted for a second consecutive day Thursday and appears ready to return. Kluwe admits the swelling in the knee of his punting leg probably will cost him a couple of yards.
--LB Heath Farwell (knee) has been downgraded from probable to questionable on the injury report. Soreness in Farwell's knee after Wednesday's practice caused the move.
--DT Kevin Williams continues to practice and is expected to play Sunday after missing two games because of a sprained right knee.
--CB Fred Smoot appears set to remain the Vikings' nickel back for the second consecutive week. Smoot, who missed four games because of a fractured right collarbone before returning last Sunday, has lost the starting job to Brian Williams.
--RB Mewelde Moore (quadriceps) continues to practice and is listed as probable on the injury report. It remains unclear how the running back duties will be split up Sunday between Moore, Michael Bennett and Ciatrick Fason.
Atlanta FalconsHot Topic
Michael Vick appeared to remove any mystery regarding his status by practicing Thursday and looking as if his bruised ribs were no problem.
The star quarterback knows how much his teammates need him Sunday when the Falcons face the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, so he took all the snaps with the starting offense.
Atlanta is 33-18-1, including 2-2 in postseason, when Vick starts. The team is 2-13 since the start of 2003 when he doesn't.
Working in cold temperatures that allowed ice to cover much of Northeast Georgia through Thursday, Vick used the practice as a means to decide whether he will wear gloves against the Bears.
"This is a situation where we can't hold anything back," Vick said. "We have to let it all go. Regardless of how cold it is or how hard the ball is, for 60 minutes we just have to toughen up and make every play we can because if we lose this one, there is really no tomorrow."
Though last week's loss at Pittsburgh ended their eight-game winning streak, the Bears have the personnel up front and on the edge to limit how much damage Vick can inflict on bootlegs to either side.
Vick expects nothing to come easily for the Falcons.
"They have some great players," he said of the Bears. "They have a great pass rusher in Alex Brown, Brian Urlacher as well as the rest of the guys. It's a great unit."
--LT Kevin Shaffer has an enormous task ahead of him in defending Bears RDE Alex Brown. Shaffer's ability to attract a nice signing bonus in free agency could depend on how well he fares against Brown. So far, Shaffer's most memorable snap this season was the missed block he had on Simeon Rice's end-zone sack that caused a fumble.
--WR Jerome Pathon plays almost exclusively in four-wide receiver sets, but he has exceptional practice habits that help teammates, and coaches believe they wouldn't suffer a big drop-off if he were called upon.
--NT Chad Lavalais will play about 75 percent of the snaps Sunday with Antwan Lake out with an injured shoulder. With five starts as a rookie in 2004, Lavalais learned a great deal about improving his footwork to increase the leverage he applies as a pass rusher.
--RE Brady Smith hoped a couple of weeks ago that his dislocated toe would heal in time for him to play at Chicago. Raised in nearby Barrington, Ill., Smith is disappointed he will miss the chance. The injury continues to inhibit his horizontal movement.
--SS Keion Carpenter might sit out a few snaps if his surgically repaired knee gets too stiff in the chilly Chicago air. If Carpenter does miss a series, starting FS Ronnie Heard likely would move to the other safety position, and the Falcons would use Antuan Edwards.
Chicago BearsHot Topic
The Bears aren't asking much from whoever becomes the successor to Bobby Wade as the team's punt returner.
"The No. 1 goal is to get the ball caught, and then we'll go from there," special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. "Ball security is the No. 1 thing right now. We need a guy who can catch the ball and then worry about yardage afterward."
The Bears didn't get that from Wade, which is why he was waived Tuesday, even though he's sixth in the NFL with a 9.6-yards-per-return average. Wade fumbled nine punts in 13 games, something the Bears couldn't live with any longer.
The Tennessee Titans claimed Wade on waivers Wednesday.
"We gave Bobby a lot of chances," Toub said. "He had trouble holding onto the football after the catch, and then all of a sudden he had a couple muffs. So now you're saying, 'We've got to find somebody else.' That's the point we were at."
Which led to Wednesday's cattle call, including wide receivers Bernard Berrian, the favorite, and Eddie Berlin, plus cornerbacks Nate Vasher and Rashied Davis.
"We weren't pleased with the production back there, so we had to make a move," coach Lovie Smith said. "We need to get some production from it, and I feel like that could be a weapon for us. We're trying to score in any way we can, and hopefully we'll be able to get a little bit more from that position. We have a few options back there."
Vasher established the school record at Texas with 1,314 career punt-return yards on 94 attempts for a 14.0-yard average and two touchdowns, but he has yet to return any punts in the NFL. The Bears might be loath to risk an injury to a starting cornerback, but they might be forced to take a chance.
"We're going to put our best players out there and try to get a good play in every situation that we can," Smith said. "We're going to try to have our best players at all positions always."
Davis returned six kickoffs for touchdowns in the Arena Football League this spring, but he has been extremely shaky catching punts. He started in place of Wade in that role against the Packers, but after two muffs, Wade replaced him mid-game.
"I (still) feel like I can go out there and do what I need to do to get the job done," Davis said. "But it's up to the coaches to decide if they can trust me back there or not."
Berlin is a longshot. He returned seven punts last year with the Titans but for just a 3.7-yard average.
Berrian is the favorite because, according to Toub, he catches the ball better than the rest, even though he's recently returned from thumb surgery. He set career records at Fresno State with 99 punt returns and 1,144 punt-return yards for an 11.3-yard average and three touchdowns. On two attempts earlier this season, Berrian netted minus-3 yards, and he had 10 yards on two tries last season.
"I'm comfortable with it," Berrian said. "I'm fine with doing it. I've been doing it (in practice) for a while; I just haven't been out there (in games). Of course I want to do it. Any chance to get on the field, you have to want to take it."
With just four wide receivers on the roster, the threat of an injury is also a concern with Berrian, though one the Bears might have to accept.
--WLB Lance Briggs was credited with 15 tackles last week (although he also missed a couple like just about every Bears starter), allowing him to maintain his slim lead over Brian Urlacher, 151-147.
--MLB Brian Urlacher had 13 tackles last week, his 10th double-digit tackle game of the season.
--DT Ian Scott (ankle) was upgraded to probable from questionable, and he returned to practice on Thursday.
--SS Mike Brown hasn't practiced since he suffered a strained calf in practice on Dec. 8, and he has almost no chance of playing Sunday.
--FS Chris Harris hasn't practiced since he suffered a sprained knee on Dec. 4, and he is not expected to play Sunday.
The Panthers insist the Saints' decision to bench quarterback Aaron Brooks in favor of seldom-used backup Todd Bouman will not cause them to change Sunday's game plan.
"We'll be the same," safety Mike Minter said. "We will use the same plan we've had all week. We scheme more against a team than individual players anyway. We just have to be ready to adjust if they do something different."
The Panthers are expecting a steady mix of three-step drops from Bouman, a strategy Brooks employed to beat the Panthers 23-20 in the season opener more than three months ago.
"That's what they do, three-step drops," Minter said. "They haven't changed all year. I think they will probably try to run the ball and shorten the game and play some defense."
Clearly, the Panthers won't have to worry as much about Bouman scrambling.
"(Bouman) is not immobile, but he's not an Aaron Brooks," safety Marlon McCree said. "So we have to be aggressive like we would if Aaron was going to play. Every week we like to be aggressive and dominate the line of scrimmage, so whoever that quarterback is back there, our game plan doesn't change."
The Panthers are likely to get defensive end Mike Rucker back for this game. He practiced on Thursday.
--LB Dan Morgan is expected to start against New Orleans on Sunday despite tweaking his ankle last week.
--RB Stephen Davis is experiencing some soreness in his knee and was added to the injury report as questionable for this week even though he practiced Thursday. Don't look for Davis to get a lot of carries this week.
--RB DeShaun Foster should get the bulk of carries this week, especially with Stephen Davis listed as questionable with sore knee.
--DE Mike Rucker was back at practice on Thursday, although he is listed as questionable. It's still hard to gauge Rucker's status since the Panthers practiced indoors on Thursday due to icy weather conditions. Rucker didn't do much, but neither did anyone else.
--K John Kasay has missed seven of his last nine field goals from beyond 40 yards. "It's just something you see from time to time," special teams coach Danny Crossman said. "I mean, Tiger Woods goes through stretches where he is not on his 'A' game. The difference with a kicker is that you might only get one or two chances. A golfer may hit a bad drive on the first hole, but he's got 17 other holes to make up for it. As a kicker, you may only get one more (chance at a) field goal. John understands it. When we have an opportunity to score, we've got to score."--TE Michael Gaines did not practice Thursday and is likely to miss his second straight game with a sprained ankle.