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Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Carolina Panthers matchup about as big as a game can get

This game is a hundred feet tall. This game weighs a thousand pounds. This game is so big it should have suburbs.

That's the first thing you should notice about tonight's game between the Bucs and Panthers. There is just so darned much of it.

Let's see. We have a little drama, and we have a few grudges. We have a rivalry, and we have a prime-time start. We have one team that is 9-3, and another team that is 9-3. At stake, we have a division race, playoff implications and Pro Bowl votes.

Also, we have a history book for Ron Jaworski to throw at Tony Kornheiser.

Yeah, this game is monstrous. This game is gigantic. This game is so large, you can hear the sound of television executives clapping.

And yet, for all of its grandeur, this game has sort of sneaked up on you, hasn't it? How in the world did a game get so gigantic when, after all, neither of the teams involved looks like a giant? Or Giants, for that matter.

That's the perplexing part of the NFL's biggest regular-season game in years. Around Tampa Bay, there are still a lot of people who wonder if the Bucs are among the NFL's big boys. The memories of the struggles against Kansas City and Detroit are too fresh for that. Pretty much, the Panthers have some convincing to do, too. They had their own sputters against the Raiders and Lions.

Ah, but that's the nature of the NFL, a 16-game parity party. The NFL is a January league, and by and large, it leaves the December rivalry games to the college kids.

In the NFL, big games don't happen that often. Not in December. Not in division games. Not between rivals who are both having very good seasons. Not on Monday night. And certainly not in the NFC South.

"I think this game will decide the champion of the division," Kornheiser said. "It's a huge game from that standpoint. Is it a huge game nationally? Is it going to get that psychological walkup? Not the way Dallas vs. the Giants would. Not the way Tennessee vs. New England or Indianapolis would.

"Here's what works against them. The division is surprisingly terrific, but if you look at the history of three of the four teams, Tampa Bay and Atlanta and New Orleans, and they have been laughingstock franchises. And Carolina was 1-15 not long ago.

"I think it's an insider football game. I don't think it will bring casual fans. I don't think the drumbeat will bring in fans who don't know much about football. But for the bean counters, this is nirvana."

So how big is it?

• In the history of the NFL, there have only been five other games in which the teams that were tied for first place in their division with a winning percentage of .750 or more have played each other this late in the season. The winners (the Giants over the Eagles in '61, the Redskins over the Cowboys in '83, the Broncos over the Seahawks in '84, the Giants over the Redskins in '86 and the Colts over the Titans in '03) all went on to win their division titles.

• Not since 1997, in a game between the 49ers and the Broncos, has there been a Monday night game where, after Week 12, both teams had a winning percentage of .750 or better. When you consider all the people working overtime to make sure that Monday Night Football gets good matchups, that's a long time.

• In the history of the Bucs, the team has never been six games over .500 and played a regular-season game against another team that is six games over .500.

• In the history of the Bucs, the team has played only six regular-season games when it was six games above .500.

• For crying out loud, in only three of the Bucs' 15 playoff games were both teams at least six games over .500.

• Six games over .500? Forget that. How about a winning record. Throughout the history of the franchise, the Bucs have played 126 games in December. They have played only 39 of those with a winning record. And only 20 came against an opponent with a winning record.

So, yeah, this game is fairly huge.

The question: Are the Bucs big enough to measure up?

Oh, with the Bucs, there are always questions. Will they run the ball well enough to take advantage of a mediocre run defense by the Panthers? Will they protect the ball? Will they convince themselves that falling behind by three scores is, technically, a bad thing?

Certainly, all the incentives are there. A grip on the division race. Possible homefield advantage during the playoffs. Swaying voters for the Pro Bowl. Oh, yeah, and those are the Panthers on the other side.

From the day that Panthers punter Todd Sauerbrun ripped Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica to the day that Chris Simms lost his spleen, the teams have found each other a tad annoying.

Still, given the rivalry, you might suspect the teams would play games like this more often. The NFC South, perhaps the hardest division in the NFL to predict in recent seasons, hasn't allowed for that. In the six-year history of the division, this will be only the second time that two teams have finished with winning records. The other time was in 2005, when Simms and Cadillac Williams combined to lead the Bucs past the Panthers 20-10 in Week 14.

This is bigger. This should be one of biggest regular-season games in the history of the Bucs. Oh, back in '79, they had to win their last game of the year to get into the playoffs, but that was against the Chiefs, who weren't very good then, either. The same in '81 and '82.

This time, the loser doesn't have to go home, and the winner doesn't clinch anything. So, yeah, the game could be bigger.

All things considered, it's big enough.

By the time it ends, we'll know how big the Bucs are, too.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Carolina Panthers matchup about as big as a game can get 12/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 10:44pm]
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