The Bucs received encouraging news Monday as defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, who has missed the past three games with a fractured right forearm, is close to returning.
Expected to return around the middle of December, likely Dec. 23 against the Steelers, McFarland may be back for the Dec. 1 game in New Orleans.
"Right now, we're going to get it X-rayed again later this week and hopefully, best-case scenario, I'll be able to come back for the New Orleans game," McFarland said. "We'll have to see what the doctors say. Obviously it's an internal thing and you can't see what's happening in there, but I have good strength in my arm and feel great."
McFarland, who was having his best season, injured his forearm Oct. 27 at Carolina and was expected to miss up to eight weeks. In his place, reserves Chartric Darby and Buck Gurley have been holding their own, but getting McFarland back in two weeks would boost the defense.
"He is improving," coach Jon Gruden said. "We are going to be optimistic and hope that by New Orleans, the big fella will be ready to go."
In his fourth season, McFarland, 24, said he broke a bone in his foot at Louisiana State and it took 4-5 weeks to heal. He said the forearm is different considering how much linemen use their arms and said he would not take risks playing prematurely.
"I'm definitely not going to rush back before it's ready," said McFarland, who had 27 tackles at the time of the injury. "I have to think about the rest of the games this season and following seasons. But I would like to get back as soon as possible."
Added incentive is the likely significance of the game against the Saints and the fact that McFarland is from Winnsboro, La.
"To tell you the truth, I would like to play in all of the games," he said. "But every player likes the opportunity to play in his home state. But we'll see what the doctors say."
OTHER INJURIES: Aside from cornerback Ronde Barber having surgery on his fractured left thumb, there were a number of other injuries stemming from Sunday's win against the Panthers. Receiver Keyshawn Johnson has a right rib contusion but is probable for Sunday's home game against the Packers. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp is battling lower back spasms but will be "listed as probable and hopefully his back spasms will subside," Gruden said. Right tackle Kenyatta Walker, who enjoyed one of his best games as a pro Sunday holding off heralded rookie Julius Peppers, sprained his right ankle. He may not practice much this week but is listed as probable.
SHOW ME THE PROOF: Over the years, the Bucs have developed a reputation for winning ugly. There have been a few of those this season. But Gruden said there is little proof that any team wins pretty in the NFL.
"I'll say this, hopefully for the last time: Show me who is winning pretty and send me the tape," Gruden said. "That's what I want to see. I want to see what a beautiful win looks like. I don't know what this is all about.
"I'm miserable when we lose. I'm not going to be miserable when we win. I realize that there are areas where we need to improve. But somebody send me those tapes. I'm looking for a beautiful win."
MAKING TEDDY PENDERGRASS PROUD: There were games last season when the Bucs gave up leads late in the second half, namely in Minnesota, Green Bay and Cincinnati. And it had become a point of concern during the offseason.
Well, one explanation for this season's 8-2 start has been the defense's recommitment to closing the door on opponents late in games. It did it again Sunday, thwarting a desperate attempt by the Panthers to score in the final minutes.
"We're finishing games in the fourth quarter where as in the past couple years we would let the lead slip away or we give up a score," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "Now, everyone's making a play, and we're slamming the door in the fourth quarter. That's something coach has stressed since he's been here."
Safety John Lynch said the fact the Bucs have allowed 119 points through 10 games (11.9 ppg), best in the NFL, is particularly impressive considering scoring is up this season.
"We play to our standard and don't try to play to other people's standards," Lynch said. "Closing the door was something we really emphasized this year. (Sunday) they had two drives (stalled with no score), one at the end of the half and one at the end of the game. That may seem insignificant to some people, but we don't treat them as that."
PLAYER MOVES: Guard/tackle Tutan Reyes was signed to the 53-man roster and defensive tackle DeVone Claybrooks was released. Reyes originally signed with Tampa Bay on Oct. 1 before being released Nov. 6. He was reassigned to the practice squad the next day. Claybrooks entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in May 2001 and was signed to the practice squad Nov. 6. He was promoted to the active roster Nov. 15.
_ ROGER MILLS