After two years of wandering through the forests of offensive game-planning, have the Buccaneers finally found their identity in the thundering hoofbeats of a guy who used to be known as the A-Train, a 250-pounder who was all but phased out but came galloping back onto the scene in the 41-14 victory over the Vikings last weekend? Is this the kind of approach they will need this Sunday to break an 11-year jinx at Lambeau Field against the Packers?
Mike Alston carried the ball 28 times for 129 yards on Sunday. Over the first five games his numbers were 31 for 132. Against Minnesota he was featured by necessity, because Warrick Dunn was out with a hamstring injury, and Alston showed his gratitude by reviving fond memories.
In Tampa Bay's greatest season, 1999, when the Bucs came within six points of the Super Bowl, Alston had his biggest year, leading the team with 949 yards. Muscle on defense and more muscle on offense were the team's trademarks. An offensive coordinator will never be labeled a genius for running an attack like that, but it was effective. It also gave the team some kind of identity.
Since then Alston has been an afterthought. For a while he was labeled a fumbler. Then, as the cry went out to spruce up the offense, and imports arrived on the line and in the receiving and quarterbacking corps, he was overlooked, a player who was nice to have around but not the type you'd call on to carry the offense.
Minnesota ran for good yardage against the Packers on Oct. 21, and Alston had his moments in a 14-10 Bucs win in Tampa two weeks earlier, delivering the game-winning touchdown on a 39-yard run. The Packers will be waiting for him, of course. They'll crowd the box and defy Brad Johnson to beat them with his arm.
The last time Tampa Bay defeated Green Bay up north was in 1989. You remember that Bucs team, Lars Tate and James Wilder packing the pigskin, Vinny Testaverde hitting Mark Carrier deep. The Packers have had a bye week to think about the way the Vikings handled them and to see how the Bucs did the same to the Vikings. They'll be rested and ready. Green Bay's the pick.
The NFC Central's new A-Train is the Bears' hard-running rookie, Anthony Thomas. Every week he gets better, and he's a nice counterpoint to the controlled short passing of Shane Matthews, who rescued the Bears after Jim Miller went down with a hip injury against San Francisco. I see Thomas having a big day against a Cleve-land defense that's skilled against the pass but vulnerable to the run. Chicago will win it on the ground.
The Broncos' longtime offensive line coach, Alex Gibbs, is gone, but the chop block lives on. Tackle Matt Lepsis was fined $15,000 for taking down the Chargers' Maa Tanuvasa from behind and breaking his ankle on Oct. 21. New England linebacker Bryan Cox vowed eternal vengeance against Denver guard Dan Neil for fracturing his right leg on another chop on Sunday. No one understands these tactics better than the Raiders, who have lost to the Broncos seven consecutive times. Monday night's battle might get ugly, but I think Oakland breaks the jinx.
What's wrong with the Ravens' defense? The cornerbacks aren't playing as well as they did last year, and end Michael McCrary is the only lineman having any impact. But Pittsburgh's run overload is made to order for Baltimore, which this year has shut down big-name runners like Corey Dillon, Eddie George and Ahman Green. The Ravens will win in a low-scoring affair.
Upset special: The Patriots, with quarterback Tom Brady getting back on track, will beat the Falcons. Upset No. 2: The Redskins, surging with two consecutive victories, will make it three in a row by beating the Seahawks. The Eagles, on the road this time, will knock off the Cardinals, and the Titans will take a close one from the Jaguars.