Bucs Still Have Long Way To Go
They pointed to the record, to the NFL-best 9-2 mark, and insisted it should be taken seriously. They looked at the rest of the league, at all the teams right at or around .500, and questioned how skeptics could dare question how the Bucs got to where they are. They pointed to the 21-7 victory against Green Bay (also 8-2 at the time) as a defining game in this season, one in which the Bucs' top-ranked defense shut down Brett Favre and enabled Tampa Bay to gain the best record in the NFC, and inside track at homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

Yet, throughout this unprecedented run, there were whispers. How could a team serious about making a Super Bowl run do so without a legitimate running game? How could it go all the way if it can't win crucial games on the road? And how could it survive against other playoff teams with an offensive line that can't protect its quarterback, or open up holes for its running backs?

Those questions didn't need to be addressed as long as the Bucs were winning and all was well with the team with the NFL's best record. But following their 23-20 loss at New Orleans on Sunday night -- their second this season to the 8-4 Saints -- the Bucs now share the best record in the NFC with Philadelphia and Green Bay. Two teams that are sure to give the Bucs the coldest of receptions should Tampa Bay have to take to the road during the playoffs.

There's no question: The Bucs' defense, despite a few hiccups along the way, have been the dominant unit in the league. They lead the league in interceptions, have the NFL's sacks leader in Simeon Rice, and have held opponents to fewer than 10 points in five games. But Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Rice and Co. can't take handoffs, or protect Brad Johnson, or pave the way for Michael Pittman and Mike Alstott.

In a game that could have strengthened the Bucs' hold on the NFC South, avenged an opening-day loss and kept them a game up in the race for homefield advantage, the Bucs fell flat. Alstott and Pittman managed only 34 yards rushing, the offensive line allowed four sacks and constant pressure on Johnson, and the defense gave up too many big plays at too many inoppurtune times.

Now come the Falcons, a team that has yet to lose since a Week 5 setback to the Bucs, who are a half-game behind Tampa Bay and who boast the most dynamic quarterback in the league in Michael Vick. When the Bucs beat Atlanta 20-6, they did so while Vick was nursing a sprained shoulder. He completed only four of 12 passes, and ran just once for 1 yard. Since, he has passed for six TDs (against just three interceptions), run for 7 scores, and electrified opponents with his speed and savvy. But the game's at home, where the Bucs have lost just once this year -- to the Saints -- and where the Bucs want to be come playoff time. And where the Bucs have been able to ovaercome the very problems that could end up being their undoing come January.