The Bucs are in a great position to reach the postseason for the first time since winning Super Bowl XXXVII.
With division games against Atlanta and New Orleans at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa Bay owns many of the tie-breakers.
But coach Jon Gruden doesn't want his team to focus on playoff scenarios.
"We try not to put up all the playoff scenarios," coach Jon Gruden said. "We just try to play a small hand here and deal with what we have to deal with here, which is practice, installation. It's not about duplicating the intensity that we played with earlier in the year, it's about exceeding that. This is the time of year where you have to be at your very best, no matter how you feel. I think our players understand that, no matter how young or how old they are."
The Bucs' youth - especially on offense - has been a topic this season. Rookie running back Cadillac Williams needs 53 yards to reach 1,000 for the season. All of the first-year starters will be getting an initial taste of the postseason.
"One difference is the long season," Williams said. "It's a much longer season than college. There's a lot more grind. You've got to be mentally strong to play on this level. I'm not really thinking about the playoffs and things like that. We're thinking about Atlanta and getting this win. We feel like if we get this win, everything else will take care of itself."
However, the Bucs admit they are well aware which teams need to lose to improve their playoff seed.
"Well, if you have a lottery ticket you have a chance to win the lottery," Gruden said. "So you're going to watch the lottery to see if you win.
"Common sense tells you that we're excited to be in the race. We also realize that we've got to take care of our jobs. We've got to do our stuff. We've got to find a way to win."
--QB Chris Simms had no trouble throwing the football in practice Tuesday despite a sprained thumb on his left hand he suffered at New England.
--QB Luke McCown will serve as the No. 2 quarterback Saturday against New England.
--RB Cadillac Williams had averaged 102 yards per game for the previous four games until he was held to 23 yards on 14 carries last week against New England. Williams needs 53 yards to reach 1,000 as a rookie.
--FB Mike Alstott has a chance to be named to his seventh Pro Bowl . He leads the Bucs with six touchdowns.
--WR Joey Galloway's 1,152 receiving yards already are a career high and sixth on the Bucs all-time single-season list.
--WR Ike Hilliard has 32 catches, 22 of which have gone for first downs.
--TE Will Heller, who played seven games with the Miami Dolphins this season, was re-signed Tuesday.
--TE Anthony Becht has an ankle sprain and did not practice Tuesday. He is listed as questionable for Saturday's game against Atlanta.
--DE Simeon Rice has 10 sacks this season, the eighth time he has reached double-digits in his career and the fifth straight season he has done so.--DT Anthony McFarland has a hamstring strain and is questionable for Saturday's game against Atlanta.
The Vikings are going to need improved offensive production on third down and in the red zone if they are going to remain in the playoff hunt by winning their final two games.
Both areas proved to be major weak spots in Sunday's 18-3 loss to Pittsburgh at the Metrodome. The Vikings got a total of three points on four trips into the red zone and were 3-for-12 on third down.
For the season, the Vikings are 26th in the NFL in red-zone efficiency (41.9 percent) and are 30th in third-down conversions (31.6 percent).
"We have to continue to look at what we are calling on third down and who we're calling it to," coach Mike Tice said. "Everything starts with making the third-down conversions so we can keep those chains going.
"We have to find a way to make third downs. So when something is not going well, you have to look at what you are doing. You can't say that was one week, because now we've got two games left and we're about dead last in third-down conversions. We've got to continue to look at what we're doing."
Tice said about three weeks ago the Vikings changed their Thursday practices to be almost exclusively third down in the red zone. That has helped the defense, but not the offense.
"Our defense has picked it up and our offense hasn't," he said. "Why? We'll continue to look at that. That is what coaches get paid for. To keep looking at what we are doing. Look at how we are doing it. Look at how we are meeting. Look at who is saying what. Look at whose ideas you are using. Maybe we should try using someone else's ideas. We'll just keep looking at it until we get it fixed well enough to win the game."
--DT Kevin Williams, who sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee Nov. 27 against Cleveland, returned Sunday against Pittsburgh after missing two games. He finished with six tackles and a sack - only his second of the season. Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell was pleased with Williams' performance and said the Pro Bowl player had lost about four pounds.
--SLB Keith Newman will miss a second consecutive game Sunday because of a sprained right knee, meaning Raonall Smith will get another start. Smith had four tackles in Sunday's game and recovered a muffed punt.
--MLB Sam Cowart had a team-leading nine tackles Sunday to become the Vikings' top tackler with 90 this season. Cowart passed CB Antoine Winfield, who has 89.
--QB Brad Johnson lost for the first time Sunday after helping the Vikings to six consecutive victories. Johnson threw two interceptions - one more than he had tossed during the winning streak - and had a season-low 38.6 passer rating as the Vikings were held without a touchdown by Pittsburgh.
--QB Shaun Hill remains the backup to Johnson but has yet to see any action this season. He had been the third-string QB before Daunte Culpepper suffered a season-ending knee injury Oct. 30 at Carolina.
--RB Michael Bennett is clearly atop the depth chart again after getting a team-high 11 carries for 43 yards in the loss to Pittsburgh. Bennett continued to have problems holding onto the ball Sunday - he recovered his own fumble one game after losing the ball against St. Louis - but for now he's Mike Tice's top back.
--RB Mewelde Moore had only two carries Sunday and now has four rushes for minus-1 yard in the past three games. Has been slowed by a variety of injuries this season but also seems to have fallen out of favor with Tice. Moore remains the primary punt returner.
--RB Ciatrick Fason, whom Tice said he was enamored with last week, had three carries for no yards Sunday and failed to score on back-to-back rushes from inside the Steelers' 5-yard line. Fason also muffed a short kickoff in the third quarter that Pittsburgh recovered and turned into a field goal.
--WR Marcus Robinson appeared to catch a touchdown in the first quarter against the Steelers, but the officials ruled he did not have possession of the ball when he landed in the end zone. The Vikings challenged the call but it was upheld. Robinson finished with two receptions for 38 yards and is third on the Vikings with 30 catches.
--WR Travis Taylor tied Koren Robinson for the team lead with three catches against Pittsburgh but that was for a total of 28 yards. Taylor hasn't had more than 28 yards receiving in a game since he caught five passes for 70 yards on Nov. 27 against Cleveland.
--WR Koren Robinson led the Vikings with 34 receiving yards and three catches versus Pittsburgh. Robinson was involved in two key miscues in the loss. The first came in the second quarter when Brad Johnson attempted a shovel pass that caught Robinson off guard. The ball went off Robinson's left shoulder pad and deflected right to Steelers linebacker Joey Porter. That ended a drive that had moved to the Steelers' 6-yard line. In the third quarter, Robinson failed to call for the ball on a short kickoff and Ciatrick Fason ended up fumbling it. Both players called it a case of miscommunication.
--WR Troy Williamson was active for a second consecutive game after sitting out the previous two but did not catch a pass.
--WR Nate Burleson had two catches for 24 yards against Pittsburgh but remained mostly silent in what was supposed to be his breakout season. Burleson has only 20 catches and is largely the forgotten man in this offense.
--TE Jermaine Wiggins had two catches for only 9 yards Sunday and sprained his left ankle in the third quarter. Wiggins' 59 receptions lead the Vikings but he has only five catches in the past three games.
--K Paul Edinger made a 20-yard field goal Sunday but also had a low 32-yarder blocked in the third quarter. He is only 2-for-7 this season from 30 to 39 yards. Overall, Edinger is 20-for-29 on field-goal attempts.
Atlanta FalconsHot Topic
Players reported to Falcons' headquarters Tuesday to watch film of the 16-3 debacle Sunday night at Chicago.
It's doubtful the session will lead to a turnaround that restores confidence and helps the Falcons win at Tampa Bay this weekend. Atlanta is playing very poorly right now, its only two wins in the last six games coming against teams with a combined 7-21 record - Detroit and New Orleans.
Coach Jim Mora talks daily about the youth and inexperience of his team. He's probably right to believe players like DeAngelo Hall, Jonathan Babineaux, Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, Michael Boley, Demorrio Williams, Chad Lavalais and Darrell Shropshire will benefit from this difficult stretch.
But the season began with a stirring victory over Philadelphia and hopes of winning the NFC. With a roster that includes Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn, Alge Crumpler, Keith Brooking, Patrick Kerney and Rod Coleman, it seemed highly unlikely the Falcons would miss the playoffs.
So many signs point to opponents having learned how to stop Vick. Other teams also know they can hammer the Falcons' defense with the run, and eventually they'll break off a big run that's the equivalent to knocking out the foundational part in a dam.
The coaches have apparently cast their lots with the schemes, but there are plenty of personnel issues on an offensive line that's undersized and overwhelmed and a defense that's woefully lacking at safety, inexperienced at linebacker and inconsistent up front.
--QB Michael Vick is only in his third full season as a starter and in just his second year in this offense, but anybody with the NFL's most lucrative contract can't perform so inconsistently and avoid criticism.
--QB Matt Schaub has the size, talent and smarts to become a successful starter, so the Falcons should trade him this off-season for draft picks they can use to improve the secondary and the offensive line.
--RB Warrick Dunn deserves a Pro Bowl spot, but his season pales in comparison to those produced by Shaun Alexander and Tiki Barber. Clinton Portis is one back that could make the final third spot interesting for Dunn.
--RB T.J. Duckett has 15 yards in his last 22 carries. Safeties are hitting him high as linebackers and wrap up his torso and defensive linemen help from behind. When Duckett can't keep his feet moving, his effect is zilch.
--FB Justin Griffith fared poorly against Carolina and Chicago, both of which have dominant defensive lines. Anthony McFarland and Chris Hovan wore down more easily at the Georgia Dome last month, so Griffith hopes to create better chances for Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett in the second half against the Bucs.
--TE Alge Crumpler is a veteran who won't hold back his feelings this week or next. He couldn't care less about building for the future. Crumpler wants to win now, and he will demand the best from everybody around him, coaches included.
--WR Brian Finneran, the team's most reliable receiver, has re-emerged as a reliable target for Vick this season. The staff needs to create more opportunities for Finneran and give him more first-option routes.
--WR Roddy White improves each week. Had he and Michael Vick connected on a deep route on which White beat Nathan Vasher on a corner route to the end zone, the outcome of the Bears game might have been different.
--WR Michael Jenkins proved his toughness against the Saints when he fought for a difficult catch on a crossing pattern and even more so when he caught a pass on which Bears S Mike Green nearly took off his head.
--PK Todd Peterson is 21-for-22 on field goals this season. Though his leg strength is lacking, Peterson's accuracy is a great asset inside 45 yards.
--LDE Patrick Kerney was just a couple of feet away from hitting Chicago QBs Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman for sacks last week, but teams have learned to keep an extra blocker on his side to chip him and cause that split-second delay that gets the ball out of the pocket.
--RDE Jonathan Babineaux made the best of a difficult situation last week in which he started the game on the outside and played inside to relieve occasionally Chad Lavalais. Babineaux will benefit greatly from spending an off-season in the Falcons' conditioning program. He needs more upper-body strength regardless of the position he plays next year.
--UT Rod Coleman looked like a menace when he sacked Bears QB Kyle Orton early in the first quarter, but the Bears quickly neutralized him with double-teams and rendered him ineffective for the rest of the game. Coordinator Ed Donatell needs to create more ways to free Coleman and increase his chances as a pass rusher.
--MLB Keith Brooking has made the most of a difficult situation after moving inside during Week 6. He needed a game to adapt, but Brooking has continued to make plays in the passing game.
--LCB DeAngelo Hall did a good job against Muhsin Muhammad despite having a considerable size disadvantage. Muhammad caught one pass for a first down, not bad for the second-year veteran Hall.
Chicago BearsHot Topic
Bears wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad called the decision to switch quarterbacks a difficult one, but coach Lovie Smith disagreed - sort of.
"I wouldn't say (it was) a hard decision," Smith said. "It was a decision that had to be made. It's not easy, and you don't feel good about making decisions on Kyle (Orton), who has led us to nine wins. To make that move is tough; it's tough for him, but this gives us our best chance to win right now."
Rex Grossman's promotion to starting quarterback drops Orton to No. 2 and Jeff Blake to No. 3 on the depth chart. Smith said that, despite the demotion, Orton accomplished a great deal for a rookie who wasn't expected to play at all this season.
"Most rookies, if you look at how they played this year, Kyle can definitely hold his head up," Smith said. "He's led us to (10) wins. We feel real good about that. As Rex's rehab came along and he got better physically, we talked about our quarterback position improving, getting stronger. It's a lot stronger today."
During his four-month rehabilitation from surgery on his fractured ankle to playing the second half in Sunday night's victory, Grossman had his doubts, but only about his health.
"I really didn't doubt my talent, that I could go out and play," he said. "It was more of, 'Is my ankle going to be healthy? Am I going to feel 100 percent when I get out there, or am I always going to have a little limp for a while, at least for this season? There was some uncertainty (whether) I was going to feel as good as I feel now.
"It's just unbelievable the rehab I did with (Bears trainer) Tim Bream. I had a great surgeon in Dr. (Armen) Kelikian and Dr. (Mark) Bowen. They did an unbelievable job with doing the surgery, and from there it just all kind of clicked. I felt good. And then I'm out there warming up for Pittsburgh, running around feeling better than I did before I got hurt. It was fun to feel healthy and then to get the accuracy back and all that, it all just came together pretty quickly."
--QB Rex Grossman regained his starting job, leading the Bears to 10 third-quarter points after taking over in the second half for a struggling Kyle Orton. Grossman completed 9 of 16 passes for 93 yards with one interception.
--QB Kyle Orton was benched in favor of Rex Grossman after completing 2 of 10 passes for 12 yards in the first half Sunday night, and then demoted to second string the following day.
--RB Thomas Jones had 27 carries, tying his season high, but he was held to 91 yards, his eighth straight game under 100 yards. He scored his eighth touchdown, a personal best.
--RB Cedric Benson (sprained right knee) might return to practice this week, five weeks after he was injured.
--RB Adrian Peterson had only three carries for 6 yards, giving him two-game totals of four carries and 9 yards. In the previous five weeks, he had 50 carries for 290 yards.
--WR Muhsin Muhammad had three catches for a team-best 40 yards, giving him 60 receptions for 692 yards, less than half the 1,405 yards he had last season with Carolina.
--WR Bernard Berrian caught two passes for 20 yards, carried the ball twice for 31 yards and returned two punts for 30 yards.
--WR Justin Gage caught two passes for 29 yards and threw a key block on Bernard Berrian's 37-yard run on an end-around.
--TE Desmond Clark failed to catch a pass for just the third time this season.
--PK Robbie Gould made 3 of 4 field goal attempts, hitting from 29, 35 and 39 yards but missing wide right on a 44-yarder.
--CB Nate Vasher had high eighth interception of the season, leaving him two short of the Bears record of 10.
--MLB Brian Urlacher led the Bears with a game-best 12 tackles, his 11th game in double figures.
--S Mike Green intercepted his first pass of the season and then caused another interception when he separated Michael Jenkins from the ball, which was grabbed in mid-air by Nate Vasher.
Carolina Panthers coach John Fox praised quarterback Jake Delhomme following Sunday's game for his steady play this season.
Although Delhomme had two more turnovers in a victory over the Saints, raising his season total to 20 - 15 interceptions and five fumbles - he did throw his 20th touchdown pass of the season and ran for his first touchdown of the season.
"Jake's been excellent for us," Fox said. "You know, the other team practices, too, so you're not always great. But he's been consistently good for us. We've gotten to the point where we're 10-4 now, and Jake's had an awful lot to do with it."
Fox was especially pleased with the way Delhomme ran the two-minute offense to near perfection at the end of the first half and punched it in with 2-yard touchdown run to give Carolina a commanding 17-7 lead.
"It was anybody's game in the first half, like most games in this league," Fox said. "That gave us a little breathing room right before the half, and plus we knew we had the third-quarter kickoff."
--QB Jake Delhomme has a chance to make the Pro Bowl this year. Think about it - name three quarterbacks more deserving in the NFC than Delhomme. Hard to do, isn't it?
--QB Chris Weinke did not play on Sunday, but remains the team's No. 2 quarterback.
--QB Stefan LeFors is Carolina's third-string quarterback. The rookie from Louisville has not played all season and would only see action in a real emergency situation.
--RB Stephen Davis was placed on injured reserve on Saturday. He has not commented about the decision yet.
--RB DeShaun Foster will get the bulk of carries for the Panthers the remainder of the season. He is still the No. 1 runner, even though Nick Goings got 15 carries last week. Goings saw increased action in the fourth quarter because the game got out of hand. Foster ran for 74 yards on Sunday against the Saints.
--RB Nick Goings will be the primary backup at running back with Stephen Davis on IR. Goings got 16 carries for 52 yards against the Saints. QB Jake Delhomme said Goings will be a big part of the offense this week.
--FB Brad Hoover did well running on third-and-short situations on Sunday against the Saints.
--WR Steve Smith leads the NFC in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches and appears a lock to go to the Pro Bowl. The Cowboys will look to take Smith away by putting an additional player on him and make the Panthers beat them with the run.
--WR Keary Colbert was replaced in certain three-receiver sets on Sunday by Drew Carter. Colbert has struggled all season and has shown almost no sign of being a factor down the stretch. Colbert had no catches against the Saints.
--WR Ricky Proehl remains the team's No. 3 receiver, but hasn't had any big grabs in awhile. That normally means he's ready for a big game.
--TE Kris Mangum could see fewer balls thrown his way this week with Michael Gaines expected to return.
--TE Michael Gaines has missed the last two games with a high ankle sprain but said he definitely plans to play against Dallas.
--WR Efram Hill was added to the 53-man roster. He took Stephen Davis' roster spot aftewr Davis was placed on injured reserve.
--PK John Kasay is in the midst of a terrible season, having missed 8 of his last 10 field goal attempts from beyond 40 yards.
--P Jason Baker leads the NFC in net punting average, but credits his coverage team with that.
--PR Steve Smith continues to be a factor on punt returns and will likely continue in that role down the stretch and into the playoffs, despite being the No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
--KR Rod Smart was benched last week.
--KR Jamal Robertson struggled in place of Rod Smart, averaging just 22 yards per return on Sunday.
--DE Julius Peppers didn't have a sack on Sunday, but did get pressure on Saints QB Todd Bouman. Given the way the Cowboys blocked last week, Peppers could be in for a big game against Dallas on Saturday.
--DE Mike Rucker is worthy of being selected to the Pro Bowl if it happens.
--DT Brentson Buckner batted away one pass on Sunday that resulted in an interception.
--LB Dan Morgan played last week against the Saints and had one crushing hit that resulted in an interception.
--S Marlon McCree will have to step up and help the Panthers to shut down Dallas RBs Julius Jones and Marion Barber this week.