Last season the Buccaneers and the Rams battled each other for a trip to the Super Bowl. The stakes won't be as high when they meet again this Monday night, but the downside is scarier—the specter of elimination before the playoffs even begin.
The cast for both sides is almost the same. The Bucs have their furious defense, minus middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson. Because of the talent they added this year, their offense should be better than the outfit that hung around with the Rams until the dying moments of last season's NFC Championship Game. Somehow, though, it hasn't worked out that way.
Quarterback Shaun King was kind of an unknown commodity in '99. Now we know that he leaves the pocket early when the protection breaks down, and he seems more comfortable handing off the ball to Warrick Dunn than throwing it. But just when you're ready to give up on him, he comes up with a clutch play that keeps the sticks moving.
The Rams, stung by intimations that their beautiful offense was a thing of the past, responded with real anger against the Vikings on Sunday. It was the anger of a fencing master, carving up an opponent with �p�e or foil. First seven possessions, seven scores (not counting a kneel to close out the first half), with everything on rhythm and no dropped passes or fumbles or penalties to speak of. It was as pretty an exhibition as you'd want to see, and it came on the same day that Tampa Bay was slugging it out with Miami in a soaking rain and winning with defense—exactly the kind of game the Bucs enjoy most.
Tampa Bay showed the world how to tame the Rams last year. Keep everything short, close on the receivers quickly so that they can't turn little gains into big ones, don't miss tackles. I'm sure the blueprint will be similar this time, but the game will be played outdoors in Tampa instead of in the Rams' domed stadium. When St. Louis's timing is off, the offense tends to break down, as it did in Carolina two weeks ago. You disrupt the timing with pressure, which is a Buccaneers specialty. The Rams won't have the kind of picnic they had against the Vikings, but they won't give the game away, either, as they did when they turned the ball over seven times against the Panthers.
My prediction? If the game is played in a rainstorm like last week's Miami-Tampa Bay downpour, I like the Bucs. If the turf is dry and fast, I favor the Rams. I say the skies will be clear. I'll take St. Louis.
We're stirring dying embers when we try to handicap Pittsburgh-Washington. The Skins should have been fired up to perform for their popular new coach, Terry Robiskie, last week. Instead they were lifeless. The Steelers were physically whipped by the Giants. I think Pittsburgh will bounce back, but the Skins won't. There's something deeply wrong with that whole operation. The Steelers will win.
The Jets will get back on track at home against an injured Lions outfit. The Broncos will keep it going against the Chiefs at Arrowhead. The condition of quarterback Jay Fiedler's left shoulder puts an iffy aspect on Miami-Indy, but I think the Dolphins can prevail with the running game and defense—and Damon Huard, if he's the man. Finally, the Giants are due for an emotional letdown after three weeks of coach Jim Fassel's psychological games, and it could come in Dallas, where the Cowboys—uh, do I really believe this? No, I don't. The Giants are the pick.