Bucs Get Some Help To Keep Wild-Card Hopes Alive
Still a prohibitive long shot to earn a fifth consecutive playoff berth, the Bucs picked up ground on some NFC rivals Sunday. Most importantly, Tampa Bay's 16-3 victory against Houston, coupled with Seattle's loss at St. Louis, pulled the 7-7 Bucs within a game of the fading Seahawks in the wild- card chase. Forget any chance of repeating as NFC South champions - the Panthers clinched the division crown by rallying past Arizona.

Bucs fans were buoyed when Seattle, San Francisco and Minnesota lost, but the Cowboys romped to a critical victory at Washington, improving to 9-5. By winning at home against the Giants or in the regular- season finale at New Orleans, Dallas would finish ahead of the Bucs in the wild-card chase. The Seahawks figure to be 9-6 by next week because Arizona isn't competitive on the road and Seattle is 7-0 at home. But Seattle ends the season at San Francisco, and the 49ers are 6-1 at home. ``It's a matter of pride now,'' 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said after losing a shootout at Cincinnati to fall to 6-8. ``I expect our guys to come out and play hard, like they have all year.''

If Seattle and Tampa Bay finish at 9-7, the tiebreaker could come down to strength of victory, where the Bucs currently own a slight advantage. ``Our season is well-defined now,'' said Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, whose team is 1-6 on the road. ``It comes down to what we do in the next two games.''

Minnesota and Green Bay, dueling for the NFC North title, are 8-6. The division runner-up could be in the wild-card mix with the Bucs, and Green Bay beat Tampa Bay on Nov. 16. If the Vikings lose to Kansas City at home Saturday and win their regular-season finale at Arizona to finish 9-7, Minnesota would edge the Bucs because of a better conference record. ``We just want to do our part by winning and asking and praying that the NFL will give us a little help,'' Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said.