DESPERATION TIME
The Bucs are making a late playoff bid, but did they wait too
long?

"Playoff fever--catch it!" yelled one of the players in the
Tampa Bay locker room after the Buccaneers defeated the Steelers
16-3 on Sunday. Other Bucs gazed at the 31-inch television that
quarterback Trent Dilfer controlled, flipping the satellite
channels as one game after another with NFC playoff implications
wound down.

Cardinals-Eagles, overtime at the Vet: Arizona kicker Chris
Jacke lines up for a 32-yard field goal. "Miss it!" Dilfer
yells. The kick splits the uprights. The Cardinals win 20-17,
leaving them 7-7 and in a tie with Tampa Bay for the sixth and
final playoff spot in the NFC. "Goshdawgit," Dilfer mutters.

Falcons-Saints, fourth quarter at the Superdome: New Orleans
coach Mike Ditka paces the sideline. Dilfer watches a replay of
Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler throwing a 63-yard touchdown
pass to Terance Mathis. The Saints lose 27-17, falling a game
back in the wild-card race.

Coming off a year in which they made their first playoff
appearance since 1982, the Bucs were picked by many, including
SI, to reach the Super Bowl. But after losing three straight in
November to fall to 4-7, they were given up for dead. Now in the
wake of Sunday's win--their third in a row--Tampa Bay is at
least talking playoffs. As cocky as ever, the defense was
ferocious on Sunday, holding the Steelers to 102 yards over the
last three quarters and intercepting four passes in that time.
The offense stumbled around in its typical fashion and did just
enough to win in a rainstorm at Raymond James Stadium.

"The playoffs aren't in the back of my mind," says defensive
tackle Warren Sapp. "They're in the front. I can smell 'em."

If it were only that easy. Tampa Bay closes its season with
winnable road games at Washington on Saturday and at Cincinnati
on Dec. 27, but the Bucs need help. The Vikings, Falcons and
49ers have already locked up playoff spots. The Packers need to
win over Tennessee on Sunday or in Chicago on Dec. 27 to secure
a wild card, and the Cowboys must win only one of their last
two--home games against the Eagles and the Redskins--to wrap up
the NFC East. That would leave the Cardinals and the Bucs vying
for the last wild-card spot, which, by virtue of a better
conference record than Tampa Bay's, would belong to Arizona if
the two teams sweep their final two games. (The Cards have home
games left with the Saints and the Chargers.)

Tampa Bay has nobody to blame but itself for that predicament.
After handing the Vikings their only loss of the season, a 27-24
defeat on Nov. 1, the Bucs went on their three-game skid,
losing at home to the Oilers and the Lions and on the road to
the Jaguars. "I think that our biggest problem this year was
fighting all the expectations," Dilfer said last Saturday night.
"I sit in bed and think about it. When we lost and fell under
.500 early in the season, you kept hearing guys say, 'We've got
to run the table.' But the key was, 'We've got to win one game.'
Forget the other stuff. We beat Chicago and Green Bay thinking
that way, and that's how we are entering this game with
Pittsburgh."

Dilfer was right. Tampa Bay ran 45 times for 144 yards, held the
ball for 35:29 and forced five turnovers. "We know we can beat
anyone in this league," says Bucs strong safety John Lynch, who
had two interceptions against the Steelers. "I just hope we get
a chance to do it."

Carolina's Blue
CAPERS COULD WALK THE PLANK

After watching the Panthers lose to the mediocre Redskins on
Sunday, the Carolina hierarchy must have grave doubts as to
whether coach Dom Capers is the man to lead them into 1999, much
less the 21st century.

The Panthers fell behind 21-3 en route to a 28-25 loss at
Ericsson Stadium. On the sideline during the second quarter,
linebacker Kevin Greene responded to a stern lecture from
assistant coach Kevin Steele by grabbing him by the collar and
shaking him. Capers should have sent Greene to the showers, but
instead he put him back in the game. "Kevin regained his poise,"
Capers explained later. (On Monday the Panthers announced that
Greene would be suspended without pay for this week's game
against the Rams.)

Also, Sean Gilbert, the defensive tackle whom Capers pried from
Washington and made the highest-paid defensive player in history
last spring, had no sacks or even a tackle against his former
team. "I don't remember seeing Gilbert all day," said Washington
quarterback Trent Green, who dropped back to pass 43 times.

After the game Capers, who in the franchise's first three seasons
had made discipline a Carolina hallmark, said his players were
undisciplined. "Where does that start?" kick returner Michael
Bates asked pointedly.

Since beating the Cowboys to reach the 1996 NFC Championship
Game, the Panthers are 0-15 against teams with winning records.
This season they are tied with the Bengals, at 2-12, for the
league's worst record, and their first-round pick in next
April's draft belongs to the Redskins as part of the
compensation package Capers gave up to sign Gilbert. What's
equally disturbing is that, while Capers and the front office
have been given almost carte blanche to sign free agents, those
personnel moves have not panned out.

What a turnaround in two years for the 48-year-old Capers, who
had been regarded as one of the game's brightest new coaches.

Chargers Coach
'ALOHA' MEANS 'GOODBYE'

Chargers president Dean Spanos and general manager Bobby
Beathard had assured interim coach June Jones that he would get
a two-year contract after this season, so Jones, 45, went into a
meeting last week with University of Hawaii trustees and
athletic officials thinking he'd surely say no if the Rainbows'
coaching job were offered. But memories of his two years playing
and another season spent as an assistant coach at the university
came rushing back during the interview.

"Three minutes into it I felt passion about a job that I hadn't
felt in a long time," says Jones, who replaced the fired Kevin
Gilbride in San Diego on Oct. 13. Jones accepted Hawaii's
reported six-year, $1.5 million offer. Now he is faced with
rebuilding a team that has lost its last 18 games. "Big
challenge," Jones mused. "But I don't feel like I'll miss the
NFL."

As for the Chargers' coaching situation, Beathard would like to
retain the defensive staff, whose unit has ranked among the top
five in total defense all season. To replace Jones, look for San
Diego to strongly consider offensive-minded college coaches,
notably UCLA's Bob Toledo and Stanford's Tyrone Willingham.

Dispatches
SUPER TIME FOR REPLAY

Some league officials and owners are worried that the six-week
lull between the end of the season and the annual league
meetings in March will slow momentum and make the return of
instant replay next season less likely. Now that the possibility
of having replay for the upcoming postseason is all but dead,
expect proponents of replay to push for a discussion and maybe
even a vote the next time representatives from all 31 teams are
together--at the Super Bowl in Miami next month....

Assuming the league will lift its suspension, look for Eddie
DeBartolo to trade his DeBartolo Corporation holdings to his
sister, Denise DeBartolo York, for sole ownership of the 49ers.
DeBartolo had already stepped aside before pleading guilty in
October to felony charges for failing to report a serious crime,
and his sister took control of the team in his absence.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is expected to consider lifting the
suspension in February....

Bills quarterback Doug Flutie went Christmas shopping last week
at a Buffalo mall, signed autographs for 20 minutes and never
made it to a store. "I'm resigned to catalog shopping and the
Internet," he says....

After running for 137 yards and a touchdown in his team's 20-17
win over the Cowboys, the Chiefs' Bam Morris, suspended twice in
the past three years for violation of the league's
substance-abuse policy, presented a game ball to owner Lamar
Hunt to thank him "for bringing me here and giving me a chance."

The End Zone
SEPARATE THEM AT BIRTH

Rams defensive linemen Ray Agnew and Mike D. Jones were also
teammates at North Carolina State and with the Patriots. Each
drives a white Mercedes-Benz and a blue Suburban, each is nursing
a sore left knee, and each has a pregnant wife who is due the
same month.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Mike Alstott carried 24 times for 78 yards and a score as the Bucs offense played it close to the vest. [Mike Alstott in game] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [Marshall Faulk in game]

Horsepower

The Colts' Marshall Faulk (left) is having one of the greatest
seasons a running back has ever had--yet it has gone virtually
unnoticed. He is second in the league in receptions, with 78,
and has a good shot at joining former 49er Roger Craig as only
the second back to win a receiving title. Faulk also could match
another feat accomplished by Craig--the only player to surpass
1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. Also, with
2,090 yards from scrimmage, Faulk could break the NFL record for
combined rushing-receiving yards set last year by the Lions'
Barry Sanders (2,358). Unfortunately for Faulk, the Colts are
3-11, the focus in Indianapolis is on Peyton Manning, and the
Broncos' Terrell Davis is having a runaway season. The measure
of an all-around back comes down to what percentage of his
team's offense he accounts for, and here's how Faulk's season
rates against the best ever. (Cliff Battles accounted for 43.4%
of the 1932 Boston Braves' offense, but he did so with only
1,465 yards and is thus omitted from the following list.)

PLAYER TEAM YEAR RUSH. REC. TOTAL TEAM TOTAL PCT.
YARDS YARDS YARDS YARDS

O.J. Simpson Bills 1973 2,003 70 2,073 4,324 47.9
Marshall Faulk Colts 1998 1,228 862 2,090 4,475 46.7
Walter Payton Bears 1977 1,852 269 2,121 4,881 43.5
Eric Dickerson Rams 1984 2,105 139 2,244 5,246 42.8

the buzz

1. THE CRYING GAME Midway through the third quarter Steelers
coach Bill Cowher pulls quarterback Kordell Stewart, who looks
neither athletic nor decisive during a 16-3 loss to the
Buccaneers. After an angry exchange between the coach and his
passer, Stewart weeps. This must really be going over well in
shot-and-a-beer Pittsburgh.

2. THE RETURN GAME In their 23-year history the Bucs have never
returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and the Broncos haven't done
it since 1972. In Baltimore on Sunday, the Ravens (two) and the
Vikings returned a total of three kickoffs for scores in a span
of seven minutes. "The world has never seen that before," said
Minnesota linebacker Dwayne Rudd. And probably never will again.

3. THE COMPROMISING GAME After striking a tentative sweetheart
deal with Connecticut state officials to move his team to
Hartford, Patriots owner Bob Kraft got word that the move to the
largely blue-collar state capital might encounter resistance. So
he agreed to cut his annual guaranteed take on luxury and club
seating from $17.5 million to $13 million, and he cut the price
of the most expensive club seats from $5,000 to $4,000 a year.
Kraft is still left with the richest NFL stadium deal ever.

Send your pro football questions for Peter King's Mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at www.cnnsi.com.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)