Gruden has Bucs back in contention

Into a sparsely appointed interview trailer at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., in July, the always-accommodating public relations staff of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (presided over by fellow University of Pittsburgh alum Jeff Kamis) paraded a group of veterans to meet with this ESPN.com correspondent.

Largely, they told me how the Bucs were going to be a heck of a lot better in 2005 -- after two losing seasons and a 12-20 record since the franchise's Super Bowl XXXVII victory -- than most of the alleged NFL geniuses anticipated in their annual preseason punditry.

And while I listened intently, and nodded a lot as I scribbled notes in the chicken scrawl that passes for my own convoluted version of shorthand, I've got to admit that, privately, I was thinking something along the lines of: Yeah, right, guys.

Nearly six months later, reflecting on those interviews and watching some highlights of the Bucs' total dismantling of the Carolina Panthers Sunday afternoon, my late-night musings have turned to these: Sometimes, bubby, you've got to admit when you're wrong. And we were dead wrong about this Tampa Bay team. Perhaps the only consolation is that a lot of other people now share the pain of having undervalued the battling Bucs, whose 9-4 record is bettered by only four teams leaguewide, and just one NFC franchise. And I mean a lot of people because, six months ago, it was hard to scare up even one league personnel guy who projected the Bucs to win more than five or six games.

Looking back on my preseason notes, I can't find a single entry in which anyone had the Bucs as more than a .500 team, at best.

In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have been so skeptical, because most of the players with whom I visited that day are straight shooters and veterans with whom I have some history. Defensive end Simeon Rice, historically candid to a fault and a tell-it-like-it-is player. Weakside linebacker, all-around good guy and future Hall of Fame enshrinee Derrick Brooks. Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, arguably the league's most underrated corner tandem. And the big man himself, coach Jon Gruden, who bore the treacherous prefix embattled back in training camp.

Right about here, you're probably thinking: "Pasquarelli, you schmuck, those players and their head coach, like every player and head coach in the NFL are supposed to tell you in camp that they're going to surprise people once the season starts." Hey, no quarrel from this end because that's exactly right. And in the case of Gruden, well, he obviously has a lifetime membership to the Optimists' Club. But looking back again at the notes from July, I see none of those players offering even one discouraging word about Tampa Bay's prospects for 2005 in off-the-record comments. And that, given the past relationships with those guys, should have been the tip-off that they really did think their team could sneak up on the rest of the league.

Which is exactly what Tampa Bay, a club that still has a lot of flaws but has found ways to win, has done.

Two things I did get right about the Bucs in my training camp assessment: that tailback Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who reported for camp that July day at 2:30 a.m. after signing his first NFL contract, would be a superb player; and that Gruden, whose golden boy image was beginning to show some tarnish even among the most loyal of Bucs supporters, could still coach.

Here's what I wrote in July in the lead observation on the Bucs as I assessed the team:

On Friday, the team's first day of practice in training camp, Bucs players awakened to find a gigantic mug shot of Gruden on the front of the USA Today sports section, with the accompanying feature focusing on the coach's allegedly tenuous future with the team. It's a little hard, though, to believe that Gruden simply forgot how to coach since Tampa Bay routed the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. Credit the Bucs players, though, for their pragmatism and their honestly. While every one of the veterans to whom we spoke defended Gruden -- yeah, even off the record, for all you skeptics who figure the players were just posturing -- they all acknowledged that the pressure on the team is to be expected after seasons of 7-9 (in 2003) and 5-11 (in 2004). And his brilliant coaching mind and Super Bowl ring aside, the players allowed, Gruden is not immune from the pressure. "It's what happens when you lose," said star weakside linebacker Derrick Brooks, who has seen the bad, the good, and now the bad again in his nine seasons with the Bucs. "It's kind of like we bottomed out and now we have to start back over. ... Let's face it, people tend to forget (about) losers." Asked if he was at all surprised by the sudden criticism being heaped on his coach, defensive end Simeon Rice said: "Nope. Not in this league, not in this world, man. It's like an EKG. The thing goes up and the thing goes down. And when it's down, everyone runs around trying to figure out why it's like that."

For sure, the Bucs have been as up and down as the EKG in Rice's analogy at times this year. The Sunday victory at Carolina certainly was an "up" moment, given that the 20-10 win represented a 30-point turnaround from the 34-14 whipping the Panthers put on the Bucs just five weeks ago. The Bucs, notably, have won four of five since that defeat. Still, it won't be altogether surprising if the Bucs suffer another "downer," possibly as early as Saturday when they travel to New England, because Tampa Bay is not the sturdiest of teams. But this is still a team that has overachieved -- and that plays two more games in the division, including a Christmas Eve home game with Atlanta. It is still a team that can win the ultracompetitive NFC South despite an offensive line that is patchwork, a rookie tailback who seemed to hit the wall a month ago but now is running through walls again, and an inexperienced quarterback in Chris Simms.

Oh, yeah, the Bucs still can play defense, as demonstrated Sunday afternoon, and have enough parts left over from Super Bowl XXXVII to shut down some offenses. And, in Gruden, they have a guy who, while overshadowed by a plethora of justifiable coach of the year candidates for 2005, deserves a nod for the resuscitation job he has enacted.

Champs get off the mat
On the subject of CPR, that tha-thump-tha-thump-tha-thump you're hearing in the background is the sound of the New England Patriots' heartbeat getting stronger as the season winds down. OK, so the two-time defending Super Bowl champion's latest win, a 35-7 rout of a Buffalo team that Bills tailback Willis McGahee described last week as "in chaos," wasn't one to frame and hang over the mantel. But it was the fourth victory in five weeks for New England and, although the Patriots seemed destined never to be even remotely close to whole again on defense this season, the offense is starting to show a much stronger resolve.

The Pats were forced, because of a shoulder injury to Nick Kaczur, to start their fifth different offensive line combination Sunday, with Tom Ashworth getting his first-ever start at left tackle. The line wasn't flawless -- there were times Ashworth struggled against Buffalo right end Aaron Schobel, the best pass-rusher no one in the league knows about -- but it mattered little.

The tailback tandem of Corey Dillon (22 carries, 102 yards, one touchdown) and Kevin Faulk (57 combined yards on nine "touches") is finally healthy. Ditto the wide receiver duet of Deion Branch and David Givens. And there is always incomparable Tom Brady, who threw for 329 yards and will pose a threat to any visiting team that has to venture to Gillette Stadium for a wild-card game. Oh yeah, the defense played well enough to limit the pathetic Bills to eight first downs and 183 yards, including just 8 rushing yards. So in the last two weeks, the Pats have allowed just 347 yards and 10 points.

The odds that the Patriots can become the first team to register a Super Bowl threepeat are still very, very long. But there is a chance some of the injured defenders might return before the playoffs, even that left offensive tackle Matt Light conceivably might be back by the end of the regular season. Every piece of the puzzle that comes back makes the Patriots that much more a threat to make some noise in the postseason. This is, after all, a team that's all about heart. And the pulse that was so weak only a month or so ago is beginning to race a tad stronger now. Yep, it has been accomplished against a severely diluted division. But this could, in retrospect, end up being the best coaching job Bill Belichick has ever done.

Seahawks can play D, too
Another division leader (and conference pacesetter, in this case) that walloped a franchise of far inferior pedigree Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks, is no longer below the radar screen. But there remains this one area in which the Seahawks are still a surprise: Does anyone outside of the Pacific Northwest realize that Seattle, a team that on Sunday started five players on defense who weren't even with the team a year ago, leads the NFL in sacks?

Despite not having a double-digit sacker, Seattle has 45 quarterback slams, or nine more than the Seahawks totaled for the entire 2004 campaign. Getting four sacks against San Francisco, and 49ers rookie first-rounder Alex Smith, shouldn't be regarded as too big a deal. But the game was reflective of how the Seahawks are spreading the wealth in the sack department, with tackle Marcus Tubbs registering a pair; middle linebacker and rookie of the year candidate Lofa Tatupu nabbing one; and a fourth sack being credited as a "team" sack.

The Seahawks -- led by tackle Rocky Bernard (seven sacks), end Bryce Fisher (eight), and the dynamite rookie linebacker duet of Tatupu (four) and LeRoy Hill (seven) -- have 12 defenders with at least one sack each.

Everyone focuses on the Seattle offense, and that's understandable, especially in outings like Sunday's, when quarterback Matt Hasselbeck tossed four touchdown passes and Shaun Alexander ran for (ho-hum) 108 yards, which was actually 14 yards below his per-game average for the season. But the Seahawks can play defense, too, and they definitely can get after the opposition quarterback. "We might not have the 14- or 15[-sack] guy like some teams have," Bernard acknowledged. "But we have a lot of guys who can get to the passer and guys who don't mind making sacrifices so that someone else gets a sack. We can come at you from a lot of ways and, to me, that makes it hard to game-plan for us."

Ten wins not enough?
Since the NFL adopted the 12-team playoff format in 1990, only three teams that registered 10 victories -- Philadelphia and San Francisco in 1991 and Miami in 2003 -- failed to qualify for postseason play. In this season of atypical disparity alone, it's suddenly conceivable that three teams with 10 wins are left at home come playoff time. And it seems all but a given, unless things get absolutely wacky in the final three weeks of the season, that there will be at least two double-digit victory teams that don't make it to the Super Bowl tournament.

In the AFC, the battle is essentially down to one spot, the final wild-card berth. All four current division leaders in the AFC figure to be in the playoffs. And its Sunday loss aside, Jacksonville could probably use your grandmother at quarterback in its next three games (vs. 49ers, at Texans, vs. Titans) and win out, giving the Jaguars 12 victories. That leaves Pittsburgh, Kansas City and San Diego clawing for one last spot, and it's likely at least two of those teams will reach 10 wins.

There figure to be at least seven NFC teams, one more than can legally squeeze into the playoff bracket, with 10 wins or more. So someone, or more likely someones, is going to be left out.

"I think you're seeing more separation this year than in most recent seasons," Jacksonville wide receiver Jimmy Smith said. "It seems like there's haves and have-nots and not as many of the middle-level teams as we've been seeing. And the way it looks, not all of the have teams can have playoff spots."

Coaching them up
Remember how Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban was pilloried for his candid remarks after the team's 22-0 loss at Cleveland on Nov. 20? Think back for a moment to the outcry that followed Saban's comments and how some misguided souls actually wanted the league powers to initiate an investigation into whether the first-year head coach was insinuating his club might tank the rest of the season. For those of you with very poor recall, his remarks, in part, were: "The record doesn't really matter; the result doesn't matter; and the score in the game doesn't really matter."

Guess what? The opinion of no one who honestly felt the Dolphins were going down the tubes, with Saban greasing the skids, matters right now. Since Saban essentially said publicly what a lot of coaches think when they are in a rebuilding situation -- that the rest of the year would be an evaluation period and that any players deemed to have put things in coast mode could be viewed as extraneous come next season -- the Dolphins haven't lost. Beating up on dregs such as Oakland and Buffalo, well, that's nothing to brag about. But going to San Diego and beating a Chargers team everyone fears, and which is fighting for its playoff life, just reinforces what this space has said all along: Saban can coach.

The Dolphins survived some shaky officiating, and a couple of dubious instant replay rulings, to beat the Chargers and move to within a game of .500. There are no delusions in South Florida about going to the playoffs in Saban's debut season in the league. But Saban's six victories equal the total wins of the NFL's other two rookie coaches, Romeo Crennel of Cleveland and San Francisco's Mike Nolan, and the sentiment here is that both those guys have done admirable jobs in 2005.

Dare the Dolphins head into the Christmas season dreaming of a break-even campaign? Why not? The next two games are against the New York Jets and Tennessee, who own just seven wins between them, before a season finale at New England. Since Saban is a lot more careful now with his public utterances, the guess here is that he will never admit to the rest of the world that a .500 season would represent the start of a turnaround. Privately, though, an 8-8 mark probably would be pretty satisfying. And, after the beating he took following his remarks in the wake of the loss at Cleveland last month, pretty gratifying, too.

The loss by Philadelphia means the Eagles are the fifth straight team to lose in the Super Bowl and fail to qualify for the playoffs the following season. But things are even worse than that. The elimination of the battered Eagles means the Minnesota Vikings of 1977 remain the last NFC team to win a playoff game in a season following a Super Bowl loss. The Vikings lost to Oakland in Super Bowl XI in the 1976 season, then won a first-round playoff game over the Los Angeles Rams in 1977 before bowing to the Dallas Cowboys in the conference championship game. Since then, NFC franchises have lost 10 Super Bowl games. Six of those teams, now including Philadelphia, failed to reach the playoffs the next season. Four teams made it to postseason play and lost in their opening games. ... Tampa Bay's victory at Carolina snapped a five-game losing streak to the Panthers. ... The Bucs' Ronde Barber, with a sack Sunday, became the first cornerback in NFL history to notch 20 career sacks and at least 20 career interceptions. ... With 13 wins in two seasons, Redskins coach Joe Gibbs has surpassed the victory total predecessor Steve Spurrier had in his two years with the franchise. We're betting owner Daniel Snyder doesn't exactly consider that the measuring stick for success. ... Arizona wide receiver Anquan Boldin had his third straight 100-yard game. ... Cardinals first-round cornerback Antrel Rolle played Sunday for the first time since the third game of the season, when he suffered a knee injury, and had an interception in his return to the field. ... Denver cornerback Champ Bailey set a club record with an interception in a fifth straight game. Bailey has a career-best eight interceptions. ... The Ravens, who scored just three points in three forays inside the Denver 10-yard line Sunday, have been held to 10 or fewer points in six of 13 outings. ... Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman, overshadowed much of the year by teammate Nathan Vasher, is starting to come on strong. He had a huge game in the loss at Pittsburgh, with 10 tackles, a pass defensed and two forced fumbles. ... Cincinnati's 10 victories are its most since 1988. ... Bengals cornerback Deltha O'Neal has nine interceptions, tying the franchise single-season record. ... In his first four games, Randy Moss had three 100-yard performances. Since then, he has had just one game with more than 75 receiving yards. ... The Minnesota starting secondary totaled 23 tackles, four interceptions, six passes defensed, one forced fumble and one recovery in Sunday's victory, the team's sixth straight.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.