Without fanfare, Tampa Bay Buccaneers are proving they're a threat in the NFC

Jeff Garcia, left, with Jerramy Stevens, has quietly posted the fourth-best quarterback rating in the NFC.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Jeff Garcia, left, with Jerramy Stevens, has quietly posted the fourth-best quarterback rating in the NFC.

TAMPA — Near as I can tell, the Buccaneers do not pummel. And they almost never drub.

To be honest, they seem more like survivors than conquerors. A rogue kind of team with one foot always pointed toward the nearest exit, slinking away before anyone is the wiser.

So imagine America's surprise when the Bucs arrived in the final week of November as the team to beat in their division and the current No. 2 seed in the NFC.

This is the team that benched its quarterback in September, right? The team that seemingly misplaced its top receiver and said goodbye to its featured running back? The team that is second in the NFL in fumbles lost?

This is the second-best team in the NFC?

As of today, yes.

The divide between No. 1 and No. 2 in the conference is wide. The Giants are the best team in the NFC and probably the best team in the NFL. On that point, few people seem to disagree.

But when it comes to the second-best team in the conference, there is no consensus. For a while, it was probably Dallas. It could have been Carolina, it might have been Arizona, and, for a moment, it might have even been Philadelphia.

And any of those teams might still end up in the NFC title game in January. The point is the Giants are on the top, the Lions are on the bottom, and there are a handful of teams trying to emerge from the middle.

And the Bucs have as good a chance as any of them, maybe even a little better.

There is a tendency in this league to pay too much attention to flaws. When you watch a team week after week, you are constantly reminded of its shortcomings. And, trust me, the Bucs have a few.

But, and this is the key, the Panthers also have flaws. Or haven't you watched Jake Delhomme lately? The Cardinals don't run the ball very well, and the Cowboys have too many turnovers. In other words, the conference has a lot of teams in contention, but no one close to perfection.

It is true the Bucs had to come from behind to beat Kansas City and Detroit. It is true that more than half of their games have been decided by six points or fewer. Yet it is also true that Tampa Bay is in first place in the NFC South, and no team has won more games against conference opponents.

"You look around the media, and nobody really seems to think we're the No. 2 seed. It's almost like we're fighting for a wild card right now," center Jeff Faine said. "We're happy to get a win however we can get it. If it's ugly or if it's pretty, it's still a win. This head coach makes a point of saying it doesn't need to be pretty."

Perhaps that is why so many people have underestimated what the Bucs do best.

Because they rarely throw deep, the passing game is not particularly sexy. Yet quarterback Jeff Garcia is the No. 4 rated passer in the NFC.

Because they spread the wealth in the running game, the Bucs have no one in the top 10 in the NFC in rushing. Yet they are averaging far more yards per game than they did in the Super Bowl season of 2002.

Because the biggest names on defense are nearing the end of their careers, the Bucs do not seem to draw a lot of attention from the suits on televisions. Yet they have given up fewer points than any team in the conference.

"You can look at stats, you can look at strength of schedule, you can look at the teams with a higher average margin of victory, and none of it matters," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "This is a bottom-line business. I don't care what your stats are, the only thing that matters is wins and losses."

That may be the one area in which the Bucs excel. They have yet to throw a game away this season. They have not lost at home, and they have not lost to a team with a losing record. They have won all of the games they were expected to win, and maybe one or two more. In today's NFL, that is not a minor feat.

Look at the Redskins and Cowboys. They both have losses against the Rams. And that is the reason they are trailing the Bucs by one game instead of being tied for the second-best record in the conference.

"We're playing well right now. We certainly look like we could be that team that finishes with the No. 2 seed," defensive lineman Kevin Carter said. "At the same time, the next five weeks will tell the tale of just who is what. You could say in theory we're the No. 2 team today, but if you can't get the job done, it really doesn't matter.

"It would be a pretty useless thing to say we're No. 2 in November if we don't finish the season that way."

The Bucs have five regular-season games remaining.

That's five more opportunities to underwhelm. Five more opportunities to compile useless stats. Five more opportunities to fly under the radar.

And five more opportunities to win.

Without fanfare, Tampa Bay Buccaneers are proving they're a threat in the NFC 11/24/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 28, 2008 7:20pm]

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