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CadillacPower24_2006

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: October 26, 2006, 10:30:13 AM

TAMPA - Matt Bryant did more than just kick himself into the record book Sunday. When he blasted his now-legendary 62-yard field goal to beat the Eagles, Bryant also booted the Bucs back into the NFC playoff picture.

They're not a prominent figure in that picture, but they're there. Look closely and you'll see them. The Bucs are the ones peering in from the edge like some guy ruining your favorite family-vacation photo.

Of course, at 2-4 the chances of the Bucs becoming a prominent member of that picture are pretty slim. There's no question, though, that their two-game winning streak has altered their outlook.

Once a team that seemed to be bobbing face down in deep water, the Bucs not only have bounced back up and regained their legs, they've also established much-needed momentum.

"When you get back on a roll like we have and you win a couple of games, that's when good things start to happen for you," fullback Mike Alstott said. "All of a sudden you see the life come back in the team.

"I mean, I've seen it happen before. We saw it happen all through the [Coach] Tony Dungy years, when we'd get off to those 3-4 starts and we still came back and made the playoffs."

The difference between those Dungy years and this one is that third victory. This year's team doesn't have that third victory yet, so that makes this week's game against the Giants huge.

Win it, and there's every reason to believe the Bucs still can walk away with one of the NFC's two wild-card berths. Lose it and the chances of sneaking into the playoffs in any capacity become remote.

That point hasn't been lost on the Bucs. They know precisely where they stand and what Sunday's game means. And despite their recent success, they know they've yet to hit full stride.

Coach Jon Gruden pointed out this week there are several areas in which the Bucs are playing well below the standards necessary to win consistently.

One such area, Gruden said, is the passing game. Though he has made some plays to move the Bucs into position to win, rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski has yet to develop a good rhythm with his receivers.

He has completed 57 percent of his throws, and with only four completions of more than 20 yards, he has struggled to develop a successful rapport with deep-threat Joey Galloway.

"We [do] need to hook up on those things," Galloway said of the deep passes. "And I don't look at [it] as he needs to get better. I look at it as we both have to get better together.

"And we'll get there, but it's going to require some more work on both our parts. It's something you can't quite get in practice because it's hard to simulate the [game-day] speed there.

"I mean, some aspects of the quarterback-receiver connection just take a little longer than others to develop, but we'll get there. It's a timing thing and an execution thing, and we'll get it."

Until they do, the Bucs might have to rely more on their running game. That's not necessarily a problem. The Bucs' rushing attack has come back to life the past three weeks, averaging 4.8 yards per carry during that span.

But the offense in general has developed a tendency to die out long before it gets into scoring position. Though they rank 10th overall in red-zone production, the Bucs have had only 14 red-zone possessions.

Only the Broncos have had fewer red-zone possessions, so there clearly is a need for the Bucs to do a better job finishing scoring drives and take better advantage of good field position.

For instance, on consecutive drives against the Eagles, the Bucs got the ball at their 36-yard line, their 47-yard line and their 44-yard line. Each drive ended with the Bucs punting after three plays.

"I think we do [need to do a better job of finishing drives]," Gruden said. "We have done a pretty good job recently of finishing off drives, but we didn't do a good enough job [Sunday]."

The Bucs didn't do a good enough job of tackling Sunday, either. That has been a problem just about all season, and Gruden warned that the Bucs won't go far if the effort doesn't improve.

He also warned that the Bucs need to do a better job of finishing games, especially on defense. Like just about every other facet, the Bucs haven't played to their usual standards in that area.

"We do have work to do," Gruden said. "We're not a perfect team. But we feel like we're a pretty good team. There are some areas we have to do better in to compete, but we're hanging around and we're not going anywhere."
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