Even Mark Cotney is amazed to see the Tampa Bay Bucs where they are, which is one game away from playing in the Super Bowl. Long suffering, a hero who deserves a Homer to immortalize him in epic verse, a traveler in the nether regions of humiliation, Mark Cotney is the only man who has played in every Tampa Bay game from the very get-go -- only he suffered in all 26 games of that 0-26 streak. And today he is amazed.

"Our goal this year was just to make the playoffs," said Cotney, a safety who from his spot 20 yards downfield once was called on to make 16 tackles against Pittsburgh, so terrible were his playmates up front.

"And we felt that was setting our goals pretty high."

Heads must have nodded in bemused agreement, because then Cotney spoke of Sunday's game with the Los Angeles Rams for the National Conference championship and a spot in the Super Bowl two weeks hence.

"If we win this game, then we've done something beyond my wildest expectations, being in the Super Bowl in four years," he said.

It is undeniably true that Tampa Bay is a football team on the rise. But the Bucs' arrival on the doorstep of the Super Bowl also is vivid testimony to what Tex Schramm, the Cowboys' president, calls "the creeping socialism" of the NFL.

As anyone with sense knows, NFL teams get better by crafting college players of ability. The Bucs have done well in that, hiring fellows named Ricky Bell and Doug Williams, Lee Roy Selmon and Dewey Selmon. Year One, the Bucs went 0-14, followed by 2-12 and 5-11 before this season's 10-6.

A look at the scoring by Tampa Bay opponents gives another indicator of the Bucs' improvement. In Year One, an even dozen teams scored more than 20 points against the newborn expansion team created from league castoffs (each NFL team made available its worst 13 players). This year only four teams scored as many as 20 points against the Bucs, who, in fact, led the NFL statistically in defense.

As important as such improvement is, Cotney's surprise and America's astonishment is as much the result of Schramm's perceived socialism.

It works this way: The worse you play, the easier your schedule is the next year. The intent is to make competition more balanced. The league wants each game to be a show, not a disaster. It would please Pete Rozelle and his minions if all 28 teams finished dead-even at 8-8 because then every city in the NFL would be made with playoff frenzy.

To keep the poor teams in contention, then, the league this season began a new system of scheduling. Instead of the traditional method -- under which it might take a decade before all 28 teams had played the same teams, thereby achieving a quasi-fairness -- the NFL created a schedule which drew a team's nondivision opponents from a pool of teams with similar records.

So by virtue of its 5-11 record in 1978, Tampa Bay this season played in what we might call the Kennel Division -- it had a whole lot of dogs, including Baltimore, Atlanta, San Francisco, Kansas City.

The thesis here is that Tampa Bay improved its quality of play from 1978 to 1979, but that alone was not enough to get the Bucs into the NFC championship game. They made it because the weak schedule made their record two or three victories better than it would have been under traditional scheduling. Instead of going from 5-11 to a real 8-8, say, the Bucs went to a false 10-6.

That isn't hard when you play six of your 16 games against teams that are so bad they cannot win more than five games.The Bucs were 5-1 against San Francisco (2-14), Detroit (2-14), Baltimore (5-11) and Green Bay (5-11).

Teams on Tampa Bay's schedule this year won only 36.2 percent of their games. Los Angeles' opponents -- a tougher lot by far, seeing as how the Rams were division champions last season -- won 52 percent of their games. The Rams had nine games with teams that played .500 ball; the Bucs had three such games.

It also helped the Bucs that they played in football's weakest division, the NFC Central, because even under the "creeping socialism," teams still are required to play their division opponents twice a season.

So by getting better, being given a soft schedule as reward for playing so badly the year before and having the good fortune to be in a division that can't get out of its own way, Tampa Bay made it to the playoffs -- and, after beating Philadelphia, now needs only to beat L.A. to become the luckiest team ever in the Super Bowl.

"We know we have the players to win now," Cotney said."We can beat anybody."

Maybe. Maybe these Bucs could have won 10 games against the Rams' schedule. Maybe the victory over Philadelphia last week -- a 24-17 victory over a good team that had beaten Dallas and Washington, to name two prominent victims -- is evidence these Bucs can play with anybody.

Mark Cotney senses doubts about that. "Even though we beat the Eagles when everybody said we wouldn't, it's still going to take this next game to prove to everybody that we're a good team," he said. "If we get to the Super Bowl, nobody can say anything about us."

Whatever happens Sunday, gone are the days when Cotney and his Tampa Bay buddies were 0-for-26 jokes.

"From day to day, I didn't know who would be lockering next to me," said the fifth-year man out of Cameron (Okla.) State. "Somebody'd be there one day, gone the next day. And this was late in the season. Oh, many strange things were happening. Guys right off the street would show up. Maybe they had tried out for two or three NFL teams and didn't make it. They figured they could make it here. Some HUGE guys, but they couldn't play."

Pulling guards once collided behind the Tampa Bay center, someone going the wrong way. John McKay, the coach, said his offense couldn't score against a strong wind. Cotney and the defense spent a lifetime on the field those first two seasons.

"The defense played so much, we couldn't get all the defensive film on the reels," Cotney said. "The offensive film meeting might last 15 minutes, but the defense would be looking at film for two hours. There were two reasons for that. First, the offense couldn't move the ball. Second, the defense couldn't stop anybody."

In Year One, the mighty Steelers beat Tampa Bay, 42-0. Cotney remembers the day. "It was cold, it was on that artificial turf, we had everybody hurt, we were using a little linebacker playing his first game -- and our guys up front weren't making any tackles, so we in the secondary had to tackle everybody. It was a nightmare to see Franco Harris busting upfield toward you. He set some kind of record that day."

A victory Sunday might put the Bucs into the Super Bowl against those Steelers.

"I won't have to make 16 tackles this time," Cotney said. Then he smiled at the thought of Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. "Wouldn't that be something?" he said.