Hear It Here First: T-Bay Is On Its Way

In 1492, Christopher Columbus was determined to reach India by sailing west and stumbled upon the New World. In 1664, Isaac Newton saw an apple fall from a tree and accidentally discovered the law of gravity. Now, in 1997, Tony Dungy, one year after taking one of the worst jobs in all of coaching, improbably will plop into postseason with the perpetually unproductive Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Yes, stuff happens - to master mariners, to brilliant scientists, even to defensive specialists.

Green Bay may be Titletown, USA, but this year Tampa Bay is Playoff-Ready, ASAP.

(Superman had X-ray vision; The Man has T-Bay Vision.)

Traditionally, Tampa Bay is to football as LaToya Jackson is to music. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, no franchise has been worse - entering the league in 1976, the Buccaneers are 101-223-1 for a winning percentage of .312; no other team is below .400.

Incredibly, at 7-10 just into his second season, Dungy has the best career record of any of Tampa Bay’s six coaches.

But after three straight road losses last year at midseason - by scores of 13-9, 13-7 and 13-10 - Dungy’s Buccaneers have gone 6-2, including Sunday’s 13-6 upset of San Francisco.

In fact, Tampa Bay has won its last six home games. These days, nobody goes into historic Houlihan’s Stadium and beats my Bucs. Nobody. For Houlihan’s Stadium is a nightmare for visitors, particularly if you’ve eaten at Houlihan’s before the game.

Dungy’s defense, led by hit-and-run Hardy Nickerson and career-killer Warren Sapp, has been tough, but more critical has been the transformation of Trent Dilfer.

In his first three NFL seasons, Dilfer threw 17 touchdown passes and 42 interceptions. But over this 6-2 stretch (and remember, numbers don’t lie, unless they’re coming from the Democratic National Committee), Dilfer is 140 for 220 with six touchdowns and only six picks. He’s protecting the ball better than Charlotte protects her web.

For now on, we’re referring to Mr. Trent Dilfer as “T.D.” as in touchdown.

Anyway, last week I wrote that Tampa Bay would be “9-7ish and playoff-ready!” Let me amend that - 9-7ish, my foot; 10-6, my friends, OR BETTER. These Buccaneers not only are playoff-ready, they’re playoff-hungry!

Naturally, I’ll back my eerie notions with funny money, taking Tampa Bay, as a five-point underdog, at Detroit.

As always, all picks against the point spread are for recreational purposes only:

49ers (-5) at Rams: So this is the suddenly sad-sack tale for the high-brow, chardonnay-sipping Taj Mahal of pro franchises: The 49ers will start a no-name quarterback (Jim Druckenmiller) who’s never been in an NFL game guided by a clothes-horse coach (Steve Mariucci) who’s never won an NFL game. Pick: Rams.

Giants at Jaguars (-4-1/2): Jaguars QB Rob Johnson, after throwing seven passes in first two NFL seasons, was 20 of 24 for 294 yards Sunday, reminiscent of Burt Reynolds, who barely spoke a line for three seasons on “Gunsmoke” before starring in “Dan August.” Pick: Jaguars.

Vikings (-2) at Bears: You know, I see Dennis Green hollering in the Vikings’ locker room, and I’m thinking it’s too much Knute, not enough Rockne… . You know, if Bears LB Bryan Cox were a tree, each autumn he’d yell at the leaves for falling. Pick: Bears.

Cowboys (-9) at Cardinals: Team officials checking to see if it violates the terms of Cowboys WR Michael Irvin’s probation when he tries to keep the football after a touchdown… . So Deion’s found God. Geez, I didn’t even know he was looking. Pick: Cardinals.

Redskins at Steelers (-5-1/2): Steelers coach Bill Cowher vowed “to get to the bottom of this” after game film of 37-7 loss to Dallas showed a pinata in offensive huddle. Pick: Steelers.

Bengals (-1) at Ravens: To avoid blowing fourth-quarter lead, renegade Ravens have gotten league approval to play game in three 20-minute periods, NHL style. Pick: Ravens.

Broncos (-5) at Seahawks: If Dennis Erickson loses many more 41-3 games, one morning he’s going to find the head of a Pentium processor in his bed. Pick: Seahawks.

Bills at Jets (-4): Jets coach Bill Parcells recently backed out of Book-of-the-Month Club commitment, telling friends, “It was only a contract.” Pick: Jets.

Patriots (-5) at Colts: Female cadets at The Citadel have it rougher than Drew Bledsoe - on the road to 5,000 yards - did against the Chargers. Pick: Colts.

Chiefs at Raiders (-5-1/2): Raiders coach Joe Bugel has banned swearing, or using any expression favored by ESPN’s Stuart Scott. Pick: Raiders.

Panthers (-3-1/2) at Falcons: Carolina needs another linebacker injury like Russia needs another underpaid space scientist. Pick: Falcons.

Oilers at Dolphins (-6): Memo to Jimmy Johnson: Dolphins offense without Dan Marino is like a whiskey sour without the whiskey. Pick: Oilers.

Packers (-7-1/2) at Eagles: Against Giants, Eagles offense and QB Ty Detmer had that “Chu Chu and the Philly Flash” look. Pick: Eagles.

Chargers at Saints (-2-1/2): With season essentially over, Chargers will focus on 1998 draft and year-end Sadie Hawkins dance. Pick: Saints.

Last week: 8-7.

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