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Bucs on slippery playoff slope

It's time to admit it. The Bucs have not only lost their sheen, they have faded from contention in the minds of many NFL fans.

National publications that descended like locusts on Tampa Bay in September have been exterminated. The bandwagon has lost more than a few passengers. Destiny's darlings aren't so lovable as losers again.

"Tony Dungy did a heck of a job," said John Madden, the former Raiders coach and Fox's excitable, arm-waving NFL pundit. "They got off to a great start. I don't think they're going to duplicate that same record in the second half."

Forget that if the season ended yesterday, the Bucs (5-3) would have secured one of the three NFC wild-card spots.

If you are Tampa Bay, all it takes is a few defeats to make others lose faith.

"I think because of what's happened in Tampa in the past, a lot of people are going to assume it's going to happen again," Dungy said. "But we played a real explosive team in Detroit and they outplayed us. We played two games against teams that are 6-2 and we lost one by four points and one by five points. And we had the ball in each game with a chance to win. So I don't think we've fallen apart.

"I don't think there's any lack of confidence. But until we win a couple games, I think the general public is going to think we've tailed off."

Worse yet, some may think the Bucs are in a tailspin.

To get more of an expert analysis of where the Bucs are headed (the playoffs? the trash heap?), we sought opinions from some of the NFL's best player/coach-turned-broadcasters, a panel that included Madden and Howie Long from Fox and Joe Theismann and Ron Jaworski from ESPN.

Here's what they had to say about the Bucs' problems, solutions and prospects for the second half.

The problem

The Bucs love to run the football and they're pretty good at it. But right now, they're in quicksand because teams have committed eight and nine defenders to the middle of the field to shut down the inside rushing attack of Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott.

Meanwhile, quarterback Trent Dilfer and his receivers have not made enough big plays in the passing game to keep anyone honest.

"Offensively, they start out with a bang with Alstott and Dunn," Long said. "What teams are doing now, there's no secret, they're loading up front and forcing the quarterback to beat them."

The change occurred in the fifth game when Arizona Cardinals coach Vince Tobin walked into a staff meeting on the Monday before their game in Tampa and announced that his team was going to play the Bears' old 46 defense against the Bucs.

It certainly worked. The Bucs produced just six first downs. Dunn was shadowed in pass coverage by linebacker Jamir Miller. Only a 31-yard TD pass from Dilfer to Karl Williams on fourth and 6 late in the fourth quarter prevented the upset and produced a 19-18 victory.

Jaworski says it's exactly what the Bucs should have expected after an unbeaten start.

"I think what happens to any team, they start out fast unexpectedly, teams are able to adjust to them," Jaworski said. "Teams that see Warrick Dunn a second time, they know what his strengths are, they know his weaknesses, and in the NFL, those weaknesses will be exposed rather quickly. I think it's just the natural evolution that teams can adjust to what they want to do."

Madden said the intensity of the Bucs' opponents has been elevated as well. In half a season, the Bucs went from the hunters to the hunted in the NFC Central, at one point owning a two-game lead.

"You play Green Bay and they get up for you and they play you like a championship team rather than the sorry Tampa Bay Buccaneer team that we've known for years," Madden said. "Teams have started playing them that way. It's going to be tougher for them."

How to fix it

This is how Dungy and Mike Shula earn their living. It's simplistic to blame the woes on a lack of execution, but there have been some critical breakdowns on plays that otherwise might have won games.

The Bucs won't change their philosophy, but the consensus is they'd better alter their approach to begin dictating to defenses the matchups they favor.

They also have to use more play-action passes on first down and allow Dilfer and his receivers more opportunities to make plays.

The Bucs have attempted the fewest passes in the NFL, yet Dilfer is the highest-rated quarterback on third-down passing. His touchdown (12) to interception (6) ratio is as good as Brett Favre's or Steve Young's and better than Drew Bledsoe's.

Dilfer needs more chances, and he must deliver.

"Now it's Tony Dungy and Mike Shula's responsibility to make the adjustment so they can get the points on the board," Jaworski said.

"I think they can still run the ball effectively with Alstott inside, Dunn on the perimeter. But if you look at their success early in the year, they were getting big plays out of the play-action passing game. I think Trent Dilfer has to get his game back to where it was at. You can run the football, play good defense, which the Bucs are doing very well. But points have to come out of the passing game."

Both Jaworski and Long suggest spreading the field with three wide receivers to force teams to play them with an extra defensive back, taking the additional defender out of the "box" and forcing him to cover a receiver.

"You look at what Baltimore did last week versus Washington," Long said. "When you have corners as good as Washington does, it gives them the ability to load up the front and stop the bleeding on the run. But (the Ravens) spread them out. They went one back and four wides and forced the extra defender that you would put in the box out to a wide receiver. I'd like to see Tampa do more of that."

Will they make it?

The opinions vary. Madden and Long doubt it. Jaworski and Theismann think they're in.

Although they have lost three straight, the Bucs produced a 5-3 record against the second-most difficult schedule in the league. Bucs opponents have compiled a record of 39-25 (.603) when you factor the results of their games against Tampa Bay. That's second only to the St. Louis Rams, whose opponents' record is 44-21 (.666).

After playing Indianapolis (0-8) and Atlanta (1-7), Tampa Bay still has two games against Chicago (1-7). That's a combined 2-22 for those three opponents. But many are not convinced.

"I would rate them as borderline," Madden said. "Obviously, the 49ers are going to be in there. I could see Green Bay and Minnesota being in there. I could see two teams from the East.

"When you're Tampa Bay, you look and say to win your division or come in second, you have to be better than the Packers or the Vikings. That's a little tough. That would be a pretty big jump for the Buccaneers."

Long agrees. "Strength of schedule is in their favor, but as John said, it will be a struggle to duplicate. There's no more surprises. People know what they are and they rise up to the occasion."

Theismann believes Dungy will find a way to not only end the Bucs' 14-year losing streak, but also prevent them from staying home for the holidays.

"I think the Bucs will make the playoffs," Theismann said. "This is a much better football team, a much more talented football team, a much tougher football team than any they've had, and that credit goes to Tony Dungy. I think the Bucs can and will make the playoffs, and with a little luck, they'll go up to Green Bay."

_ Staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this report.