Thursday January 20th, 2005

Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis is merely the latest backup running back to come up big when inserted into the starting lineup (and it's not a bad thing to have the NFL's sixth-leading all-time rusher as your backfield insurance policy). Playing in place of the injured Duce Staley, Bettis, the AFC's offensive player of the week, rumbled for 149 yards on 33 carries in the Steelers' 27-3 domination of Philadelphia on Sunday, continuing the trend of teams getting great results this season from their second and even third-team running backs.

In Denver, Reuben Droughns has come out of nowhere to rush for a team-high 678 yards after starting the season playing behind Quentin Griffin (311). Where would Minnesota be this season if rookie Mewelde Moore hadn't hung up a team-best 376 yards when the Vikings were without both Onterrio Smith (278) and Michael Bennett? And in Buffalo, Willis McGahee (473) has taken full advantage of his shot to play ahead of Travis Henry (317), posting 100-yard days in all three of his starts, with the Bills going 3-0 with him in the lineup.

And the list goes on. Anthony Thomas (256) has been productive when filling in for Thomas Jones (511) in Chicago, Chester Taylor (337) helped Baltimore make up for the loss of Jamal Lewis (575) to a two-game league suspension, and even San Diego's Jesse Chatman (337) churned for 103 yards on 11 carries against Jacksonville a few weeks back, giving the Chargers a running threat other than the sublime LaDainian Tomlinson (689).

Sharing the load in the backfield is all the rage this season. Twelve of the NFL's 32 teams have two rushers with at least 250 yards, and a whopping 24 clubs (or 75 percent of the league) have at least two rushers with 100 yards or more. Ten teams have three rushers in triple figures, and one, Minnesota, has four (Moore, Smith, Daunte Culpepper and Moe Williams).

A division of labor on the ground has been the norm as well in Cleveland (William Green 441 yards, Lee Suggs 265), Atlanta (Michael Vick 463, Warrick Dunn 438, T.J. Duckett 219), St. Louis (Marshall Faulk 531, Steven Jackson 261) and Oakland (Amos Zereoue 333, Tyrone Wheatley 251). And with Kansas City's Priest Holmes (892) now injured, Derrick Blaylock (150) is about to be relied upon more than usual.

You can still run the one-back offense in the NFL. But this year, it's the rare team that has made to this point in the season without relying on more than one rusher.

Would you believe the 3-5 Bucs, who have long since been left for dead? Implausible? Perhaps, but hear us out. Given that there's only five NFC teams with winning records at midseason, the odds are somebody is going to make the playoffs this year at 9-7. We say the Bucs could be that team. Here's how:

Tampa Bay needs to win six of its last eight games to get to 9-7. Fortunately for the Bucs, their second-half schedule is softer than the Eagles run defense. Tampa Bay has three games that on paper look very challenging: Home and home against Atlanta, and at San Diego in Week 14. The Bucs could actually lose two of these three games and still find their way to nine wins, because none of their other five opponents have better than a 3-5 record at this point. If Tampa Bay managed to win two out of three, it would really be in position to make a serious wild-card bid. The Bucs would be the first team to start the season 0-4 and make the playoffs since the '92 Chargers.

Let's say for the sake of argument that the Bucs squeak out a victory at Atlanta this week, which could happen with quarterback Brian Griese now 3-1 as Tampa Bay's starter and the offense clicking. The Bucs' following two opponents are San Francisco and at Carolina, a pair of 1-7 stragglers they should be able to handle. That would put them 6-5 and facing a home game against the Falcons and the trip to San Diego. Even with a pair of losses, the Bucs aren't done at 6-7, because Tampa Bay closes out the final three weeks of the regular season home against New Orleans and Carolina, and at Arizona.

The Saints' season could feel like a coaching death watch by then (sorry, Jim Haslett), the Panthers figure to still be licking their season-after-the-Super Bowl wounds, and the Cardinals, well, they're usually playing the spoiler role in Week 17 (see Vikings at Arizona, 2003).

Presto, the Bucs, if they take care of business, could be in the playoffs at 9-7, after starting their season at 0-4 and 1-5. In the morass of mediocrity that is this year's NFC, anything's possible.

Let's focus on the season's final five weeks, when the postseason positioning will be at its fiercest:

• Denver at San Diego, Week 13 - The AFC West title likely will be on the line when the Broncos head for sunny southern California, where the Chargers have won four home games in a row for the first time since 1992. Denver beat visiting San Diego 23-13 in Week 3.

• Green Bay at Philadelphia, Week 13 - A rematch of last year's thrilling NFC divisional playoff game, won by the Eagles in overtime after they converted that memorable 4th-and-26 late in regulation. Brett Favre is going to want to make amends for that interception, too.

• Green Bay at Minnesota, Week 16 - If we're lucky, the Vikings and Packers will get to settle the NFC North winner head to head. But first things first. The Packers need to beat the Vikings at Lambeau this week, tying them for the division lead and putting us on track for the showdown in the Metrodome.

• Baltimore at Pittsburgh, Week 16 - The Ravens are the only team that has handled the Steelers so far this season, but that 30-13 outcome in Baltimore in Week 2 feels long ago and far away. Maybe because that was the last game that Pittsburgh rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn't start. To win the AFC North, the Ravens almost certainly will have to sweep their division rivals.

• New England at New York Jets, Week 16 - The Patriots nipped the Jets 13-7 in Week 8, but New York left the field that day believing they could play with the defending Super Bowl champs. If they can stay within a game of New England in the AFC East between now and then, the Jets could turn this one into a winner-take-all affair the day after Christmas.

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