Playoffs Remain A Possibility
The Dec. 26 rematch between the Bucs and Panthers now looms as a potential showdown for an NFC wild-card playoff berth. After a Sunday that kept breaking Tampa Bay's way, the Bucs are tied with the Panthers, Lions, Bears and the fading Giants at 5-7, one game behind St. Louis for the No. 6 playoff slot. Although the Rams (6-6) hold a tiebreaker edge by virtue of beating Tampa Bay, St. Louis must endure a difficult December schedule.

St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger suffered a shoulder injury Sunday and the Rams play at surging Carolina and at Arizona before closing at home against the Eagles and Jets, who are a combined 20-4. In blanking Atlanta 27-0, the Bucs also picked up a game on Green Bay and Minnesota, tied for the NFC North lead at 7-5. The Giants have suffered five consecutive losses and were outgained 100-7 in the opening quarter during Sunday's 31-7 debacle at Washington, a loss that dropped them to 4-7 in the conference.

The Panthers, who opened defense of their NFC crown by starting 1-7, suddenly appear well positioned. If Carolina stretches its winning streak to five games next week, the Panthers will tie the Rams at 6-7 and own the head- to-head advantage. ``We're picking up momentum with each game and we're really coming together as a team,'' said running back Nick Goings, who has reeled off three consecutive 100-yard efforts. ``The playoffs are not out of the realm of possibility.''

The Bucs, 4-5 in the NFC, have already lost in Charlotte. If the Bucs upset the Chargers on the road Sunday, Tampa Bay's playoff hopes could hinge on beating the Panthers at Raymond James Stadium and ending a three-game losing streak to Carolina. That would provide quite a story line for gritty NFC South rivals who combined to win only two of their first 12 games.

But the NFC playoff race is so jumbled, even the Lions and Bears are in the mix. ``It was fun today and we still have a chance to do some things, even though no one gives us a chance,'' Chicago middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said after surprising Minnesota 24-14. ``We've got a shot, so we'll see what happens.''

Ira Kaufman The Tampa Tribune 6 December 2004