Strange team, the Bucs. They've careened from 5--11 in 2004 to 11--5 the next year to 4--12 in '06. Now they're 4--2 and tied for the lead in the NFC South heading into a winnable game this Sunday in Detroit. Here are four reasons why Jon Gruden's guys will be playing in January:
1. A DOMINANT DEFENSE
Save for a 33--14 loss to Indy, the Tampa Bay D has been pummeling opponents. The Bucs have given up 20 points, total, through the first three quarters of their other five games. Coordinator Monte Kiffin has been rebuilding on the fly and getting strong performances from the likes of middle linebacker Barrett Ruud and strong safety Jermaine Phillips. "Jermaine gives us the physical presence we haven't had in the secondary since John Lynch left [in 2004]," says cornerback Ronde Barber.
2. JEFF GARCIA'S GAME MANAGEMENT
The 37-year-old QB has a 67% completion rate and zero interceptions. And he's not dinking-and-dunking : His 8.25 yards per attempt is higher than Peyton Manning's (7.99). It helps to have receivers who stretch the field: Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard have been consistent playmakers.
3. WINNING WITHOUT A RUNNING GAME
With Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman injured, the Bucs had just 30 rushing yards in Sunday's 13--10 win over the Titans. The key is that the backs, like Garcia, aren't giving the ball away. The NFL leaders in turnover ratio are New England (+7), Indianapolis (+7) and Tampa Bay (+6). Combined record: 15--2.
4. A FAVORABLE SCHEDULE
In their last 10 games the Bucs face one team ranked in the top 10 in both offense and defense (Jacksonville) and none that currently have five or six wins.
As long as Garcia stays upright, Gruden (above) and Kiffin have the Bucs playing well enough in a mediocre conference to make the playoffs. And win a game or two.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (GRUDEN)