The team with the great offense is weak on defense. The team with the suffocating defense struggles to score in double digits. The team with no offense is playing at home, after a week of rest. The team with no defense comes in, if not on a roll, then at least in stride. It's all a mishmash really, a bunch of conflicting signals and yellow warning lights.
Tampa Bay puts you in the mind of those Chicago Bears' defenses in the mid-'80s. The Buccaneers, led by the menacing yet lovable Warren Sapp, don't just rush the passer; they consume him, make him crazy. The Bucs don't much like quarterbacks, sometimes not even their own. They're vultures, constantly circling, looking for fresh meat. They have the best defense in the NFC and would have the best statistical defense in the entire NFL if it wasn't for that 45-0 clunker they dropped to the Raiders a couple of weeks ago.
The defensive players are the stars: Sapp, Chidi Ahanotu, Brad Culpepper, Marcus Jones, Anthony McFarland, Tyoka Jackson, James Cannida, Derrick Brooks, Hardy Nickerson and John Lynch. This list of names is synonymous with aggression. It's a team that deserves for the offensive star to be a fullback, Mike Alstott, who fancies himself a young John Riggins. The rest of the offensive players are there because, well, you can't play defense every single down. Amazingly, they play for a man whose demeanor suggests that of a librarian: Tony Dungy. He's the calm to their storm.
"None of this happens without him," Brooks, the Bucs' Pro Bowl linebacker, told reporters here last week. "None of it."
It's been a good week to celebrate Dungy down here. He should have been a head coach somewhere else five years earlier, given his credentials as a defensive coordinator in Minnesota and as a defensive assistant before that in Kansas City, and as a coordinator before that in Pittsburgh, where he studied under Chuck Noll. Funny that you don't hear many apologies from the owners and GMs who passed him over for men not even half as qualified.
"You come into an organization that's had--what?--13 straight losing seasons?" Sapp said. "He's had one [losing season] in four. That's a pretty good mark for what goes on around here and what's been doing on for a long time. It's a credit to him that he brought in a great system and we bought into it and now we're putting it together on the field. We're looking forward to taking him and putting him on our shoulders."
The reason for all that optimism, of course, is the defense. Yet, as imposing as the Buccaneers' defense is, nobody in his right mind is predicting a blowout of any kind on Saturday. The Bucs are averaging 16.8 points per game. Three touchdowns is a reach for Tampa Bay. The quintessential victory was a 6-3 decision over the Chicago Bears. Then again, scoring two touchdowns against that defense is even more than a reach.
There's a whole host of things the Redskins will have to do to win. Grabbing the lead wouldn't be a bad thing because anything a team can do to force Tampa Bay to rely more on its rookie quarterback would be good for the opposition.
But there are a couple of critical things that are essential if the Redskins are to upset the Bucs and advance to the NFC championship game: The offensive line must keep Tampa Bay's front seven off Brad Johnson, and the Redskins defense has to control Alstott and Warrick Dunn. Doing either will be difficult. Doing both may be beyond the Redskins at this point.
The Redskins have been trampled by good running backs all season. And for all the talk about how the defense has improved these last few weeks--and it has--San Francisco's Charlie Garner had his best day of the season on Dec. 26, when he rushed for 125 yards on only 12 carries. That's got to be music to Alstott's ears. It's not like rookie Shaun King can't throw the ball, but that's not what the Bucs do well, and they know it.
I feel a lot better about the Redskins' chances of devising a way to move the ball downfield while protecting Johnson. The thing Norv Turner does better than most coaches is put together an offensive game plan. This should be the type of game at which he excels. There's no great secret as to what the Redskins need to do. The best way to prevent Tampa Bay from teeing off on Johnson is to run effectively. Can the Redskins do that with Stephen Davis limping? Yes.
Brian Mitchell and Larry Centers don't often run from scrimmage, but they can. Better yet, Johnson can dump the ball to each of them in the flats, negating the pass rush and getting the ball to two tough runners in relatively open spaces. It's tough to go downfield much against Tampa Bay, and when the Redskins do try, you might see a tight end or running back or both help give Johnson some time.
Sounds simple, but it isn't. The Buccaneers have had two weeks to anticipate everything the Redskins will do. There's a tendency to discount the Bucs somewhat because there's so little style. It's a throwback style they play, with heavy emphasis on defense, running and kicking. Safe, no-nonsense, kind of like Dungy. Ultimately, I think the only things separating the Redskins and Bucs will be Martin Gramatica's field goal at the end.
There's one chilling statistic that's been making the rounds, one that doesn't speak to coincidence, but instead confirms the NFL's seeding process. In this present six-team-per-conference playoff format, the NFC team with a bye week has won 17 of 18. It's just one more obstacle the Redskins are up against when they face a team that doesn't seem to need additional help.