Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Trio emerging as NFL's top powers

Bucs, Raiders, Eagles looking good

The Associated Press

Only two of the 12 playoff teams are set, and the AFC is particularly muddled. At least Sunday's NFL games did what no other weekend has done, separating the real Super Bowl-caliber teams from the ones just hoping to get to San Diego next month.

The chief contenders are Tampa Bay, Oakland and Philadelphia. The Eagles get an asterisk - the asterisk being, of course, Donovan McNabb's health for the playoffs.

There are other teams that look poised to make some noise in the postseason, of course. Green Bay, Tennessee, Miami and New England come to mind, as do San Francisco and New Orleans. Atlanta is probably a year and a couple of top wide receivers away.

But with three weeks to go in the regular season, the Bucs, Raiders and Eagles are the most likely to push on. And wouldn't Jon Gruden and Tampa Bay against his old pals from Oakland make an interesting Super Bowl? A short rundown:

Tampa Bay (10-3). Warren Sapp said that at one point during the Bucs' 34-10 thrashing of Atlanta, Michael Vick told him: "I can't believe you guys are that fast." Sapp has been known to embellish a story, but in this case, Vick's alleged assessment of Tampa Bay's defense is correct. It certainly was fast enough to hold down the fastest quarterback in NFL history.

The Bucs have an offense, too. Brad Johnson has stayed healthy all season, and Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius added to Keyshawn Johnson give the quarterback three big targets, although not ideal speed.

But no team has everything these days. And Tampa Bay's defense, featuring Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice, John Lynch and Ronde Barber, is as good as ever. It's allowed just 159 points, 48 fewer than Philadelphia, which ranks second.

The Eagles are why the Bucs need home-field advantage.Tampa Bay has never won in temperatures below 40 degrees, has been knocked out of the playoffs in Philadelphia the last two years, and lost there again in October. The Bucs should win at the Lions and Bears (breaking the cold streak) and probably will beat Pittsburgh at home, but they need one Philadelphia loss. The Eagles are home to Washington and at Dallas and the Giants.

One positive for Tampa: The Bucs beat Green Bay and have a tiebreaker there, and no one wants to go to Lambeau in January.

Philadelphia (10-3). There's talk McNabb might be back from his broken ankle in time for the final game, on a Saturday at the Meadowlands. If not, he'd be rusty entering the playoffs. But if McNabb is immobile for that one, he becomes a juicy target for Giants sackmaster Michael Strahan, who always handles tackle Jon Runyan. Koy Detmer could be back next week for the game with the Redskins. The defense doesn't have as many Pro Bowlers as the Bucs' D, but it's carried the Eagles in McNabb's absence. Duce Staley is back to being one of the NFL's better running backs.

If McNabb is healthy and the Bucs have to come through Philadelphia, watch out.

Oakland (9-4). The over-the-hill gang is a year older and sans Gruden, but it hasn't lost a step. In fact, it's added 37-year-old Rod Woodson at safety and all he does is make big plays.

Sunday's 27-7 win in San Diego was notable for the effort by the defense, which held LaDainian Tomlinson to 57 yards.

The Raiders won their first four, lost their next four and now have won five in a row. The schedule is tough - at Miami, followed by home games with Denver and dangerous Kansas City. If the Raiders win out, the road to the Super Bowl goes through the Black Hole.

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