Starting Sunday at nemesis Detroit, Tampa Bay faces crucial trial with three of four on the road.
You're never supposed to look too far down the road during the NFL season. But the road is what could bring the Bucs down if they're not careful.
Three of the Bucs' next four games will not be played at Raymond James Stadium.
It begins Sunday against the Detroit Lions at the Pontiac Silverdome, where the Bucs have won once in the past seven years. After hosting the New York Jets on Sept. 24, Tampa Bay visits Washington on Oct. 1 and Minnesota on Oct. 9.
That certainly tops the murmurer's row of winless opponents, New England and Chicago, the Bucs have fattened up on the first two weeks. They were nice wins, and parts of Drew Bledsoe and Cade McNown still are stuck in their cleats, but what do the Bucs really know about themselves?
"I did, in fact, yesterday take a peek at the schedule and said, "Wow, we've got a tough stretch here,' " safety John Lynch said.
"If we want to take that next step, and we saw last year going to St. Louis how valuable that home field is, these games will go a long way to deciding that."
Since coach Tony Dungy arrived four seasons ago, other than their recent success at Soldier Field, the Bucs have won twice on the road against division opponents. Both came during their 5-0 start in '97 with victories at Detroit and Minnesota.
The Bucs' next four opponents are a combined 7-1, and their last two are 0-4.
It flies in the face of the comfortable cliche of playing one game at a time, but the Bucs have read the schedule and know they will have a better playoff picture by the time they reach the bye week Oct. 15.
"We're heading into a series of games with quality opponents," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "We've got to be up for the challenge each time we go out. We're no dummies. We look at the schedule and realize the first six weeks of the season is going to tell what kind of ballclub we've got. So far, so good right now. This one is really going to be a challenge for us, no doubt about it. Going into a place where we haven't played well traditionally and get a job done."
Though the Vikings and Packers have long been perceived as the Bucs' most daunting challengers, the Lions have posed the most problems.
Quarterback Charlie Batch is 3-0 as a starter against Tampa Bay. And the Bucs have been outscored 47-9 in their past two games at the Silverdome.
There are two main factors for the Bucs' struggles at the Silverdome: crowd noise, and the Lions defense.
Detroit has one of the NFL's most imposing front sevens, and it begins with defensive linemen Robert Porcher, Luther Ellis and Tracy Scroggins.
"The problem up there for us has always been right, wrong or indifferently, the crowd noise, the turf and then their front, the combination of those three," offensive line coach Chris Foerster said. "It's their speed of their front four, on their turf and their crowd noise which makes us just a little bit late off the ball. It's been hard for us to get a rhythm up there.
"When we've had success up there, we've been able to run the football. It's a great challenge for us. We have to really look at it and see if we can do better because that's the key to the game."
Porcher, who had three sacks in the last meeting with the Bucs in Tampa Bay, presents a huge matchup problem for right tackle Jerry Wunsch. "I would have to say he is the best pass rusher in the league," Wunsch said of Porcher. "He's definitely the best at getting off the ball."
Add the crowd noise, which forces Wunsch and the other offensive linemen to watch for the snap of the ball inside the pass rushers, and you have trouble.
The addition of Pro Bowl center Jeff Christy and guard Randall McDaniel should allow the Bucs to concentrate more on giving help to Wunsch and left tackle Pete Pierson. But as Vikings, Christy and McDaniel didn't fare much better at the Silverdome, where Minnesota won four times in the '90s.
"This is going to make our season," Bucs guard Frank Middleton said. "If we can go out and win three of them, that would be great. If we win all four, that's even better. This is going to show everybody where we're at. If we can go out and show we can play football, it's going to make a lot of people scared of us for the second half of the season."
If there is a Silverdome lining, it's that the Bucs are playing better now than they have at any point in the history of the franchise. Since their loss at Detroit on Halloween night a year ago, the Bucs are 11-2, including playoffs, their hottest stretch ever.
"To be a champion, you have to beat good teams on the road," Dungy said. "That's a sign when you're getting into that elite category, when you can go on the road and beat the good teams. We'll have a chance the next four weeks, at Detroit, Washington, Minnesota; we'll have a chance to show that."