Any moment now, Tampa Bay fans may begin running through the streets screaming in terror. If they wish to wave their arms in desperation, that is understandable.
After all, the Bucs play the Denver Broncos (gasp) today.
Or is it the '85 Bears?
Or the '72 Dolphins?
Or the fifth century Huns?
Whichever, things sure do seem to be hopeless around here. When you hear Tampa Bay fans talk about this game, they sound as if they were scheduled for surgery today. Dr. Manning performing, of course. It's like listening to the 301st Spartan moan about the odds waiting at Hell's Gate (the early version of Mile High).
In other words, there aren't a lot of hopeful voices out there. That's a bit of a surprise. If nothing else, this Bucs team has managed to play everyone close this year. Their five losses have all been by a touchdown or less. Not only that, but Peyton Manning isn't the first good passer they have faced.
So why doesn't anyone seem to think the Bucs have a puncher's chance in this game? Since when did the Broncos become the impossible dream?
It is the darndest thing because the general buzz about the Bucs has been so good. They play hard, they have young talent, and yes, you have to admire all of those toes on all of those lines.
Still, there is a difference between pluck and power, and no one seems convinced that the Bucs have made it to the top shelf of NFL teams yet.
Let's agree on this. The Broncos are a good football team. Peyton Manning is in the conversation of history's best quarterbacks. The Broncos are fourth in the league on offense and fourth on defense, and Manning has a rating of 104.8, his highest since 2004. Lately, Denver has been playing as if it may never lose again. Ever.
Yes, the Broncos are very good.
No, it is not time for the Bucs to surrender.
Yeah, yeah. If you're asking, well, I'd pick the Broncos, too. After all, the strength of Denver's team is the forward pass, which, unfortunately, is matched up against the weaknesses of the Bucs. Most quarterbacks, including Peyton's little brother Eli, have taken the Bucs cornerbacks to the shredder all season.
That said, Denver has lost three games this year, which means that if this was college football, the Broncos would be all fired up about the upcoming Peach Bowl. (Granted, those losses were to the Falcons, the Texans and the Patriots, all A-list opponents). Other teams have scored touchdowns in Denver. Every now and then, other teams have actually forced punts. If the Bucs won, it would be an upset, but it wouldn't be a miracle.
So how can the Bucs win?
First of all, Doug Martin has to have a terrific game. The Broncos are 20th against the run, which means the Bucs' patchwork line — which has finally shown how much it misses Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph the past couple of weeks — has to create enough holes for Martin to break a run or two.
They need turnovers. Yes, that's part of every underdog's game plan, but it's true. The Bucs need a blocked kick or an interception or a fumble. Remember when Eli Manning kept throwing to Bucs cornerbacks earlier this year? The Bucs need that to be a family tradition.
They need some offense of their own. It might take 30 points to win this plus about 35 minutes of possession time.
Then there is this: The Bucs need to disrespect a national monument. They need to knock Manning down as often as possible, even when the Broncos are on defense. Maybe even during the coin flip.
This is going to be difficult because Manning has always been hard to sack, and face it, the Bucs' pass rush hasn't been close enough to a quarterback this year to even ask for his autograph.
How good is Manning? Think of it like this. If he wins Sunday, he will be 80 games above .500 as a starting quarterback. Eighty. That's why opponents seem to swoon when they are in the guy's presence.
In other words, yeah, the Bucs have an imposing task in front of them. On the other hand, if you are still waiting for that signature win, if you need a victory over a name brand opponent before you buy into this turnaround, well, today would go a long way toward convincing the doubters.
As far as after the game? No one is going to mind if Bucs players ask Manning for his autograph.
Not if they can manage a signature win first.
Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.