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The NFL
Peter King
December 21, 1998
Desperation TimeThe Bucs are making a late playoff bid, but did they wait too long?
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December 21, 1998

The Nfl

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PLAYER

TEAM

YEAR

RUSH. YARDS

REC. YARDS

TOTAL YARDS

TEAM TOTAL YARDS

PCT.

O.J. Simpson

Bills

1973

2,003

70

2,073

4,324

47.9

Marshall Faulk

Colts

1998

1,228

862

2,090

4,475

46.7

Walter Payton

Bears

1977

1,852

269

2,121

4,881

43.5

Eric Dickerson

Rams

1984

2,105

139

2,244

5,246

42.8

Desperation Time
The Bucs are making a late playoff bid, but did they wait too long?

"Playoff fever—catch it!" yelled one of the players in the Tampa Bay locker room after the Buccaneers defeated the Steelers 16-3 on Sunday. Other Bucs gazed at the 31-inch television that quarterback Trent Dilfer controlled, flipping the satellite channels as one game after another with NFC playoff implications wound down.

Cardinals-Eagles, overtime at the Vet: Arizona kicker Chris Jacke lines up for a 32-yard field goal. "Miss it!" Dilfer yells. The kick splits the uprights. The Cardinals win 20-17, leaving them 7-7 and in a tie with Tampa Bay for the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC. "Goshdawgit," Dilfer mutters.

Falcons-Saints, fourth quarter at the Superdome: New Orleans coach Mike Ditka paces the sideline. Dilfer watches a replay of Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler throwing a 63-yard touchdown pass to Terance Mathis. The Saints lose 27-17, falling a game back in the wildcard race.

Coming off a year in which they made their first playoff appearance since 1982, the Bucs were picked by many, including SI, to reach the Super Bowl. But after losing three straight in November to fall to 4-7, they were given up for dead. Now in the wake of Sunday's win—their third in a row—Tampa Bay is at least talking playoffs. As cocky as ever, the defense was ferocious on Sunday, holding the Steelers to 102 yards over the last three quarters and intercepting four passes in that time. The offense stumbled around in its typical fashion and did just enough to win in a rainstorm at Raymond James Stadium.

"The playoffs aren't in the back of my mind," says defensive tackle Warren Sapp. "They're in the front. I can smell 'em."

If it were only that easy. Tampa Bay closes its season with winnable road games at Washington on Saturday and at Cincinnati on Dec. 27, but the Bucs need help. The Vikings, Falcons and 49ers have already locked up playoff spots. The Packers need to win over Tennessee on Sunday or in Chicago on Dec. 27 to secure a wild card, and the Cowboys must win only one of their last two—home games against the Eagles and the Redskins—to wrap up the NFC East. That would leave the Cardinals and the Bucs vying for the last wild-card spot, which, by virtue of a better conference record than Tampa Bay's, would belong to Arizona if the two teams sweep their final two games. (The Cards have home games left with the Saints and the Chargers.)

Tampa Bay has nobody to blame but itself for that predicament. After handing the Vikings their only loss of the season, a 27-24 defeat on Nov. 1, the Bucs went on their three-game skid, losing at home to the Oilers and the Lions and on the road to the Jaguars. "I think that our biggest problem this year was fighting all the expectations," Dilfer said last Saturday night. "I sit in bed and think about it. When we lost and fell under .500 early in the season, you kept hearing guys say, 'We've got to run the table.' But the key was, 'We've got to win one game.' Forget the other stuff. We beat Chicago and Green Bay thinking that way, and that's how we are entering this game with Pittsburgh."

Dilfer was right. Tampa Bay ran 45 times for 144 yards, held the ball for 35:29 and forced five turnovers. "We know we can beat anyone in this league," says Bucs strong safety John Lynch, who had two interceptions against the Steelers. "I just hope we get a chance to do it."

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