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Here are some things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. After a two-week hiatus filled with lots of radio appearances on WDAE 620 AM, TV appearances on ABC Action News and producing the 72-page November issue of Pewter Report, which is being finalized right now, let’s get this overdue SR’s Fab Five started off with a bang.
Despite losing three of their last four games and falling to 4-4, the Bucs will make the playoffs this year … if Tampa Bay beats Arizona this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
If you have read this column long enough, you know that I don’t sugarcoat anything. I tell it like it is, whether the Bucs or their fans want to hear the truth or not. If the Bucs can beat the Cardinals – and go a week or two without putting anybody on injured reserve – they should be in line for an NFC South division title and the playoff berth that comes with it.
There are several reasons why it’s not time for doom and gloom just yet in Tampa Bay. Here’s what comes to mind.
• I like the resolve that quarterback Jeff Garcia displayed in his post-game press conference after the heartbreaking, 24-23 loss to Jacksonville on Sunday in which he didn’t play well enough to secure the Bucs’ fourth home win this season.
“We have eight games remaining in this season and I know that this team is going to come back this next week, give everything that they have to give, fight, battle and do whatever it takes to turn the season around at this point in this season.”
The quote may seem kind of ho-hum to you if you didn’t hear it come out of his mouth live. Garcia was stoic in his post-game press conference and filled with verve and vigor. It’s almost like he shrugged off the loss and said, “Bring on the Cardinals … right now!”
This guy’s resolve is impressive. With the Buccaneers down 17-3 thanks to his interception that was returned 28 yards for a touchdown by Jaguars cornerback Aaron Glenn in the second quarter, Garcia comes right back with a “Take that!” touchdown three plays later on a 58-yard scoring strike.
Last year, the Bucs were done for the day if they fell behind 17-3. With Garcia at the helm, anything is possible, including five more wins.
• Tampa Bay has really helped itself with a 2-0 start in the NFC South, especially with early wins against the surging New Orleans Saints and at the Bucs’ house of horrors – Carolina. Getting a win at New Orleans will prove to be difficult if they continue to win games and gain confidence, but the Bucs face an easier task against an injury-plagued Carolina team at Raymond James Stadium in the season finale`, especially if a playoff berth or a division title is at stake.
Not only is a 2-0 start in the division extremely helpful, the Bucs’ schedule gets easier from here on out. Of the remaining eight opponents, only Washington (4-3) and Carolina (4-3) sport a winning record, while Arizona (3-4), Atlanta (twice, 1-6), New Orleans (3-4), Houston (3-5) and San Francisco (2-5) all have losing records.
• The Bucs can’t hang their heads over their defeats this year, even the last two games against Detroit and Jacksonville, which were winnable. Tampa Bay has lost to Seattle (4-3), Indianapolis (7-0), Detroit (5-2) and Jacksonville (5-2). The Bucs have only gotten killed by the Colts. Otherwise, they were competitive in their other three losses, and actually outplayed Detroit and Jacksonville, statistically.
This year’s Tampa Bay squad, while a one-and-done playoff team in my eyes, is a vastly superior team over the 2006 version of the Buccaneers. Last year, the Bucs lost seven games by two touchdowns or more. They weren’t even playing competitive football.
Yes, the Bucs have blown a golden opportunity to be 6-2 at this point and have squandered away a 3-1 start. But I just don’t see Tampa Bay being a team that will go deep into the playoffs this year. Even if the Bucs hadn’t suffered a rash of serious injuries this year, there are too many chinks in Tampa Bay’s armor to mount a serious run at the Super Bowl. The most glaring chink is the lack of pass rush.
Don’t fret over this 4-4 record, Bucs fans. If I would have told you that the Bucs had a chance to be 4-4 with 12 players on injured reserve, including three starters on offense (running back Cadillac Williams, fullback Mike Alstott and left tackle Luke Petitgout), with four more starters missing at least three games (running back Michael Pittman, tight end Alex Smith, cornerback Brian Kelly and defensive end Patrick Chukwurah), would you take it, I’m guessing most of you would have said “Yes” considering Tampa Bay was coming off a 4-12 campaign in 2006.
Remember, the expectations of most fans prior to the start of the season was slightly higher than the predictions of those made by the local and national media. Most fans were speculating records of 7-9, 8-8 or 9-7. The only higher mark that I recall reading anywhere was a 10-6 forecast from Pewter Report president Hugh MacArthur. The Bucs still very much have a shot at meeting your 9-7 predictions, Bucs fans.
Unfortunately, higher expectations come with starting the season 3-1. But as Bill Parcells has always said, “You are what your record says you are,” and as Jon Gruden has refrained, “You get what you deserve.” The Bucs are 4-4, which is where they should be, and where we thought they would be. Right on track.
• While Tampa Bay’s injured reserve list has enough bodies to field its own team, the Bucs might be a few weeks away from getting back players like Pittman, Kelly, Chukwurah, Smith and Clayton.
The return of Kelly and Chukwurah will help Tampa Bay’s pass rush. Chukwurah has the speed off the edge the Bucs have been missing and has two sacks in limited duties in his injury-marred first season in Tampa Bay. Kelly is a shutdown corner who can take away a top receiver, forcing opposing quarterbacks to hold on to the ball a second more to find another receiver to throw to. Word out of One Buc Place on Friday was Kelly might actually play against the Cardinals on Sunday.
The return of Smith, Clayton and Pittman helps both the running game and the passing game. Pittman has the experience and speed to reel off big runs and pick up first downs, while Smith and Clayton were instrumental as blockers in the Bucs’ perimeter run game. In the passing game, Pittman possesses sure hands and is excellent in blitz pickup, while Smith and Clayton were emerging as secondary weapons for Garcia.
The return of these players can help offset some of the losses on the injured reserve list. On offense, the Bucs are better off having Smith on the field than Keith Heinrich, and having Clayton on the field instead of Chad Lucas. On defense, the Bucs are better off having Chukwurah on the field on passing downs instead of Greg Spires, and having Kelly on the field instead of Sammy Davis.
• The bye week is a week away. A victory over visiting Arizona on Sunday puts the Bucs at 5-4 heading into a much-needed week off and creates good vibes around One Buccaneer Place for two weeks until a trip to Atlanta.
Not only will it buy the Bucs more time to heal up some ailing players, the bye week also affords the coaches a week to really assess what is wrong and fix it, and identify what is right and keep doing it. The fact that the Bucs will be playing a Falcons team that is coached by Bobby Petrino means that extra film study may be required. While the Tampa Bay coaching staff is familiar with Atlanta’s personnel, the new scheme, especially on offense, is a bit foreign to it.
Having a bye at midseason, as opposed to being early in the season as was the case for several years in Tampa Bay, allows the team’s aging veterans a chance to recharge their batteries for a key, second half run. It also allows the rookies who may be nearing the dreaded “rookie wall” the chance to catch their breath and get a second wind to hopefully stave off that “rookie wall.”
“I think that’s the biggest advantage we have – having that bye week later,” Smith said. “A lot of teams have already had their bye week. It’s good because the players have time to heal up and get ready for the second half of the bye week and hit the last seven games of the year hard.”
• And last, but not least, I think the addition of running back Michael Bennett will pay big dividends in the second half of the season. Credit Jon Gruden for quickly assimilating him into the offense and designing some packages that take advantage of his electrifying speed.
Gruden hated the fact that Bennett didn’t catch the ball downfield on a “Rail” route last Sunday against Jacksonville, but loved the fact that he blew by the linebacker who was covering him and got wide open. Having another burner like Bennett on the field, along with wide receiver Joey Galloway, gives Tampa Bay another home run threat, which they desperately need.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Bennett is the leading touchdown-producer on the ground. He already has one score, and is just two behind Williams and Earnest Graham in the rushing touchdown department. I don’t think Bennett will be anything more than a complimentary running back this season due to the fact that Pittman will be returning and Graham is proving that he can carry the load with three years of experience in this offense. But he will make the most of his limited opportunities, like he did on his 19-yard touchdown on a lateral against the Jaguars.
The Bucs would be wise to put Bennett back there on kickoff returns, too. His 4.2 speed could create great starting field position and might even produce that elusive touchdown people have been waiting 32 years for.
There are plenty of reasons for realistic optimism, Bucs fans. However, all of this becomes a moot point if they lose this Sunday to Arizona.
FAB 2. It’s time to talk some X’s and O’s. I had a chance to watch the game film from the Buccaneers’ heartbreaking, 24-23 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars earlier this week. Here are some of my insights regarding the game:
I continue to be impressed by second-year right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. I’ve highlighted Trueblood’s pass blocking this year, but his run blocking has been quite solid as well, showcasing the 6-foot-8, 310-pounder’s strength and power.
At the 14:51 mark in the second quarter, Trueblood shoved linebacker-defensive end Brent Hawkins to the ground with one push and then quickly got to the next level on a 2-yard run by Earnest Graham. Jacksonville called a run blitz and safety Reggie Nelson came through unblocked to make the tackle.
At the 14:51 mark in the third quarter, Trueblood shoved linebacker Mike Peterson to the ground with one hand on an inside blitz on a 14-yard run off right tackle by Graham.
“I’ve lost about 15 pounds since I got here, but I’ve gained a lot of strength, which has helped me out,” Trueblood said. “I’m a lot stronger and I’m moving a lot faster. I’m weighing about 310 pounds and I’m over 50 pounds stronger than when I got here.”
Trueblood’s only real gaffe in the Jacksonville game was not maintaining his block on defensive tackle John Henderson, who drilled quarterback Jeff Garcia, forcing an interception in the third quarter. That was a costly mistake, and those types of mishaps are the kind of plays Trueblood needs to get out of his system for him to become a Pro Bowl-caliber right tackle, which I think he can become in time.
Speaking of pass protection, the interior of center John Wade and young guards Arron Sears and Davin Joseph has continued to be somewhat of a weak link for the Buccaneers. Joseph has been disappointing this year because he has not played up to his potential. He is capable of playing much better than he has this year.
Sears has eight games under his belt, so it is understandable that a rookie would have some challenges in pass protection at times. Veteran John Wade is getting physically overmatched on occasion because he is in the twilight of his career.
On Sunday night in the PewterReport.com Roundtable I wrote how strongside linebacker Cato June was nowhere to be found for most of the game, finishing with just five tackles. When I went back and watched the game again on tape, my initial analysis of June’s performance was correct.
June missed a big tackle on Maurice Jones-Drew on his third-down, red zone catch in first quarter that helped key Jacksonville’s first touchdown drive. June didn’t do a great job of covering unheralded tight end Greg Estandia on a 30-yard catch in second quarter.
But the biggest defensive blunder had to be when Jacksonville quarterback Quinn Gray fumbled the ball deep in the Jaguars’ end zone and no Buccaneers defender was able to recover the loose ball for a touchdown or tackle Gray in the end zone for a safety.
“It’s frustrating because it looks like the ball is on the ground forever,” said Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud. “You are running to it and you are like, ‘Is it still on the ground?’ If we recover that we win the game, but we didn’t and we lost. It was sitting down there for a long time. I know that.”
To add to the frustration that Ruud and his teammates felt regarding that play was the fact that they had called a blitz but June and Ruud, who was on a delayed blitz, were both picked up. With six Buccaneers at the line of scrimmage, no one could fight off their blocks to break free and get the safety or the touchdown.
Of the Bucs’ two offensive touchdowns on the day, I came away impressed with Michael Bennett’s 19-yard score off a lateral screen. Left tackle Donald Penn, who continues to play extremely well in the absence of Luke Petitgout, threw a great block, as did tight end Anthony Becht.
But the one player whose downfield block went largely unnoticed and underreported was that of wide receiver Ike Hilliard. I would like to tell you who Hilliard blocked on the play, but I can’t because he was pancaked to the ground so quickly that I couldn’t get a jersey number.
Yes, weakside linebacker Derrick Brooks should have made the tackle on Jaguars fullback Greg Jones on third down at the Jacksonville 8-yard line with 3:13 left in the game. Instead, Jones traveled past the 13-yard line to pick up the first down, before getting tackled at the 24. But do you know what? Brooks had an outstanding game with 10 tackles aside from the whiff.
If Brooks misses a tackle like that in the first quarter, it’s not as noticeable. If Brooks misses it in the fourth quarter, it becomes magnified.
Finally, rookie defensive end Gaines Adams had a sensational pass rush on the sack he shared with fellow end Greg White. Adams stepped hard to the outside to feign an outside rush then came with a strong inside move and shot through the B gap. He used his hands well – probably the best use of his hands on any rush I’ve seen from him – and was able to close on the quarterback for the takedown in the fourth quarter.
The impressive thing about that rush was the combination of moves and hand movement that Adams was able to incorporate, along with the fact that it came on a key third down late in the third quarter. With Greg Spires suffering a serious calf injury in the 24-23 loss to Jacksonville, Adams will likely have to continue to play like this during the final eight games of the year.
FAB 3. Don’t blame Tampa Bay’s 24-23 loss to Jacksonville on poor coaching. Head coach Jon Gruden is a punching bag for some fans and media members, but it’s hard to fault him or any other coach for the Bucs’ second straight defeat.
Simply put, a veteran quarterback Jeff Garcia knows how to throw the ball and veterans Michael Bennett, Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard know how to catch it. While they receive daily instruction and fundamental coaching from their position coaches on a continual basis, last Sunday’s loss can be summed up as not being to make enough big plays in the passing game and not being able to force turnovers on defense.
The Bucs’ lack of turnover production and Garcia’s misses have been well documented this week. What wasn’t highlighted was the amount of drops in the loss that came on critical downs.
The first dropped pass came at the 9:48 mark in the second quarter when Bennett couldn’t haul in a perfect deep pass from Garcia on a “Rail” route down the left sidelines. That was a big drop because it came on third down and forced a punt.
The second drop came with 2:37 left in the second quarter on third down when cornerback Rashean Mathis hit Galloway as he was trying to make the catch. Galloway’s second drop came at the 51-second mark in the third quarter.
Hilliard didn’t get the audible from Garcia that he was the hot read on second-and-4 at the at the 5:06 mark in the fourth quarter. Although Hilliard didn’t technically drop this pass, it is one play he should have been able to make as the ball was thrown right to him but he didn’t turn around in time to see it.
Galloway dropped a pass at the 5:00 mark on the next play, which was third-and-4 at the Jacksonville 41. Tampa Bay was forced to punt on the next play.
Garcia threw a low pass to running back Earnest Graham that fell incomplete at the 1:16 mark in the fourth quarter.
The next misconnection was a play similar to the earlier one with Hilliard. Garcia threw an out route to Galloway at the 42-second mark in the fourth quarter but the pass was a bit underthrown and Galloway didn’t come back for it. That would have given the Buccaneers the first down they were unable to pick up on their final drive.
Of course we know what happened on fourth-and-4 from the Jacksonville 45. Hilliard dropped what would have been a first down when he was drilled by Mathis, which caused the ball to pop up in the air and into the waiting arms of Jaguars safety Reggie Nelson with 20 seconds remaining.
When Gruden was saying there were plenty of plays to be made in the Jacksonville game, he wasn’t kidding. What was perhaps even worse was it was the veterans who were letting the team down, offensively, not the young, inexperienced guys. At least with the young guys those types of mistakes are somewhat understandable.
FAB 4. The main reason why the Buccaneers aren’t going in the tank this year despite having 12 players on injured reserve is that the team has better depth than it had from a year ago. With tight end Alex Smith out of action with a high ankle sprain, the Bucs have a veteran passer catcher to turn to this year in his place in the form of former Seattle first-rounder Jerramy Stevens, who made a big impact in last Sunday’s 24-23 loss to Jacksonville.
Stevens was a former starter in Seattle for five years and his experience in the passing game really helped out the Buccaneers last week as he hauled in two passes for 45 yards. Stevens now has eight catches for 78 yards on the year and should see more balls thrown his way now that he has proven himself as someone who is capable of making plays in Tampa Bay’s offense.
With the Bucs trailing 17-10 with one minute left in the first half, Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia found Stevens wide open down the middle of the field for a 23-yard gain on second-and-20 from the Jacksonville 36.
“When I caught that one down the middle of the field in the red zone I was kind of surprised,” Stevens said. “I was expecting a hit, but there was nothing but grass. I was surprised. I think they were expecting Jeff to dump it down with all the pressure. They weren’t expecting a vertical route. It was great that Jeff was able to see me and I was able to make a big play.”
Stevens, whose off-field problems prior to coming to Tampa Bay have been well-documented, has fit in comfortably with the rest of his teammates and he has been welcomed with open arms.
“It is definitely cool to see the other players coming up and saying, ‘Great catch,’” Stevens said. “That’s the thing that when the coaches see you make those plays, they continue to call your number. The fact that Jeff was looking for me and I was able to make those plays, that’s the biggest thing to me. I want him to know that he can throw it up if he’s in trouble and I’m going to go get it for him.”
Stevens said there are a couple rites of passage in gaining acceptance from new teammates. After earning the respect of his teammates during the offseason and during training camp by showing up and working hard during the spring and summer, Stevens said the second stage of respect comes when you make plays on Sunday.
“You are definitely right that there are two different paths you have to cross,” Stevens said. “Everybody is going to give you the respect because you have been in the league before and you’ve earned that. But as far as you showing your teammates that you are a playmaker that can be counted on in crunch time, I hope that I crossed that path this past Sunday and I hope more balls come my way. I came here to make plays and I know that I can do that on a regular basis. I had a lot guys come up to me and said, ‘Great catches, man. That’s what we need out of you and that’s what we expect out of you.’ I made some good catches, but I expect that out of me every time. There are definitely two rites of passage. You are going to get that respect for being in an NFL locker room, but you get the admiration from your teammates when you make plays on Sunday.”
Stevens was wide open for both of his catches on Sunday, but after seeing how he could hurt defenses by stretching the field for two receptions over 20 yards, future opponents won’t neglect number 86. Ironically, Stevens could have finished the game with three big plays on three catches.
There was a play in the third quarter in which he was flanked out wide to the right sidelines and he was uncovered for about seven seconds until a Jaguars safety was finally alerted to cover Stevens. Had Garcia recognized Stevens standing there unguarded the Bucs would have picked up an easy first down – and then some.
“Yeah, I was wide open,” Stevens said. “It could have been a big play for us. That’s why I’m thankful that Jeff was looking for me when he hit me in the red zone. I had told him the play before that I was going to run past the safety if he comes down, or if he’s not that I’m going to be ‘cute’, which means I’m the ‘hot’ read. The fact that you can communicate with the quarterback and the fact that he is willing to listen and he trusts you to get open and make a play for him, that’s huge. Those opportunities don’t come very often, so you have to snatch them when they do.”
Speaking of snatching opportunities, Stevens had earned a reputation as an unreliable receiver at the end of his Seahawks career. But to his credit, he has yet to drop a catchable pass in Tampa Bay. That will only afford him more opportunities as long as he is as productive as he was last Sunday.
FAB 5. Here are some things that will hold you over until the next SR’s Fab Five:
• It’s always fun to see the trash talk and wagers start flying when the college teams of Buccaneers players meet to play. After Boston College’s stunning, 14-10 come-from-behind win last week in which Eagles quarterback Matt Ryan (a player I have written about before in SR’s Fab Five) threw two touchdown passes in the final three minutes to score the road win, I wanted to check in with two interested observers in the Bucs’ locker room – offensive linemen Anthony Davis and Jeremy Trueblood. Davis is a loud mouth, smack-talker from Virginia Tech, while Trueblood is the quiet, reserved giant from Boston College. Davis and Trueblood didn’t watch the game together last Thursday. Instead, they watched it separately and engaged in a text war with their cell phones. Davis fired the opening salvo. “First of all his right tackle was getting beat by our guy, Chris Ellis. I was texted him saying, ‘You guys need a right tackle! B.C. linemen aren’t any good!’ Just giving him a lot of mess about that. When the refs would have a bad call I would text him about that. I texted him probably seven times through the first three quarters and he never texted me back. Then at the end of the game he finally texted me back.” With the score 10-7, Trueblood got into the act. “His texts stopped in the fourth quarter and then I started sending them back to him. I forgot what he was sending me. I was ignoring them and I didn’t respond. Then B.C.’s quarterback threw a touchdown pass and I texted him saying, ‘Let’s see what happens now’ – not thinking that we would win. I didn’t believe it was going to happen. Then when he threw the second touchdown and we won, I texted him, ‘OMG!’ (Oh my God!). Then my final text to him was ‘Time to pay up tomorrow!’” A dejected Davis summed up the game like this: “That was a tough game for the Hokies. In two minutes they scored all their points. Virginia Tech’s special teams are unlike that – to give up that onsides kick. On the last touchdown, that quarterback just made a heck of a play. There wasn’t any specific route. He was just scrambling and made a heck of a play. I guess that’s why he’s a Heisman candidate.”
• Do you want to hear a damning statistic? New England Patriots defensive end Mike Vrabel has 10 touchdown catches in his career. Tampa Bay wide receiver Michael Clayton, a former first-round pick, only has eight touchdown receptions. Clayton is three injury-plagued years removed from his dazzling rookie season in which he hauled in 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. With his base salary of $980,000 the Bucs will be hard-pressed to keep him if he isn’t the team’s third wide receiver next year. I believe this team drafted Maurice Stovall to eventually replace Clayton, who I think could bulk up to 250 pounds and become a tight end due to his ability to in-line block. Head coach Jon Gruden doesn’t think Clayton could make the transition, though. “It’s not a bad thought – he’s tough as hell. But we’re having a hard time just keeping him healthy enough to play wide receiver. Do you know what I mean?”
• With the glimpses that we have seen of new running back Michael Bennett, it’s clear to me that Tampa Bay needs to acquire more players with his type of speed in the offseason. Tampa Bay needs to continue to look for players in free agency and the draft that possesses home run speed. Without Bennett or Galloway on this roster, the overall speed on offense is average at best.
• Buccaneers wide receiver Joey Galloway is on pace for another great year. With 33 catches for 564 yards and four touchdowns through eight games, Galloway would finish the 2007 season with 66 catches for 1,128 yards and eight touchdowns if he matched his production from the first half of the year over the final eight games. Galloway’s best year as a Buccaneer came in 2005 when he hauled in 83 catches for 1,287 yards and 10 touchdowns. He posted 62 receptions for 1,057 yards and seven scores last year.
• Cornerback Phillip Buchanon is the only Buccaneer cornerback to have recorded an interception through eight games, which is astonishing. Ronde Barber almost had two against Tennessee, but neither he, nor Brian Kelly nor Sammy Davis have a single pick this year. True, their opportunities have been limited in recent weeks with Detroit and Jacksonville opting to use a heavy dose of the run against Tampa Bay, but still, it’s rather amazing.
• Tampa Bay’s blitzes, which have been used sparingly this season, have failed to produce results. None of the Buccaneers’ linebackers have recorded a sack in 2007, and only safety Jermaine Phillips has a QB capture off a blitz. One thing Tampa Bay is not proficient at is putting its linebackers in position to get sacks on blitzes. I talked to head coach Jon Gruden about this to get his perspective on it and he said something interesting that I wanted to share with you: “Sometimes the thing that gets lost in the art of blitzing is that when a team picks up a blitz, it doesn’t mean that the blitz is over. The blitzer has to run over a back or beat a guard. Blitzes put everybody in one-on-ones and somebody has to win one of those. Most people think blitzes confuse people and you can get sacks. One of the reasons why you blitz is to create one-on-ones for everybody. Indianapolis will bring just one guy and now the running back has to block that guy. Now Dwight Freeney doesn’t get chipped and he gets a one-on-one. We’ve got some guys that have to win those one-on-ones. If you are a blitzer, you have to beat the back. If you are a lineman, you have to win your one-on-ones. That’s the way it is.”
• If you have not had the opportunity to go to an away game with Buc Fan Tours, now is the time. Tampa Bay fans can join yours truly, Scott Reynolds, in New Orleans to watch the Bucs battle the Saints for NFC South supremacy on December 2, or join Pewter Report's Jim Flynn in Houston to watch the Bucs take on the Texans on December 9 on the Buc Fan Tours trips. Flynn and I will be available to answer Bucs fans' questions and dish out the inside scoop on the team during those weekend get-aways. My wife Elisa and I had the chance to travel with scores of Bucs fans and Dennis Pfieffer and Buc Fan Tours crew to Green Bay in 2005 to see Tampa Bay prevail 17-16. We had a great time and I got to meet a lot of subscribers (John Garvey and lousosh among others) for the first time. Join Pewter Report on these special trips – while they last! There are only a few spots left, so reserve your Bucs road trip to New Orleans and/or Houston today by visiting BucFanTours.com.
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