After two years of wandering through the forests of offensive
game-planning, have the Buccaneers finally found their identity
in the thundering hoofbeats of a guy who used to be known as the
A-Train, a 250-pounder who was all but phased out but came
galloping back onto the scene in the 41-14 victory over the
Vikings last weekend? Is this the kind of approach they will need
this Sunday to break an 11-year jinx at Lambeau Field against the
Packers?

Mike Alstott carried the ball 28 times for 129 yards on Sunday.
Over the first five games his numbers were 31 for 132. Against
Minnesota he was featured by necessity, because Warrick Dunn was
out with a hamstring injury, and Alstott showed his gratitude by
reviving fond memories.

In Tampa Bay's greatest season, 1999, when the Bucs came within
six points of the Super Bowl, Alstott had his biggest year,
leading the team with 949 yards. Muscle on defense and more
muscle on offense were the team's trademarks. An offensive
coordinator will never be labeled a genius for running an attack
like that, but it was effective. It also gave the team some kind
of identity.

Since then Alstott has been an afterthought. For a while he was
labeled a fumbler. Then, as the cry went out to spruce up the
offense, and imports arrived on the line and in the receiving and
quarterbacking corps, he was overlooked, a player who was nice to
have around but not the type you'd call on to carry the offense.

Minnesota ran for good yardage against the Packers on Oct. 21,
and Alstott had his moments in a 14-10 Bucs win in Tampa two
weeks earlier, delivering the game-winning touchdown on a 39-yard
run. The Packers will be waiting for him, of course. They'll
crowd the box and defy Brad Johnson to beat them with his arm.

The last time Tampa Bay defeated Green Bay up north was in 1989.
You remember that Bucs team, Lars Tate and James Wilder packing
the pigskin, Vinny Testaverde hitting Mark Carrier deep. The
Packers have had a bye week to think about the way the Vikings
handled them and to see how the Bucs did the same to the Vikings.
They'll be rested and ready. Green Bay's the pick.

The NFC Central's new A-Train is the Bears' hard-running rookie,
Anthony Thomas. Every week he gets better, and he's a nice
counterpoint to the controlled short passing of Shane Matthews,
who rescued the Bears after Jim Miller went down with a hip
injury against San Francisco. I see Thomas having a big day
against a Cleveland defense that's skilled against the pass but
vulnerable to the run. Chicago will win it on the ground.

The Broncos' longtime offensive line coach, Alex Gibbs, is gone,
but the chop block lives on. Tackle Matt Lepsis was fined $15,000
for taking down the Chargers' Maa Tanuvasa from behind and
breaking his ankle on Oct. 21. New England linebacker Bryan Cox
vowed eternal vengeance against Denver guard Dan Neil for
fracturing his right leg on another chop on Sunday. No one
understands these tactics better than the Raiders, who have lost
to the Broncos seven consecutive times. Monday night's battle
might get ugly, but I think Oakland breaks the jinx.

What's wrong with the Ravens' defense? The cornerbacks aren't
playing as well as they did last year, and end Michael McCrary is
the only lineman having any impact. But Pittsburgh's run overload
is made to order for Baltimore, which this year has shut down
big-name runners like Corey Dillon, Eddie George and Ahman Green.
The Ravens will win in a low-scoring affair.

Upset special: The Patriots, with quarterback Tom Brady getting
back on track, will beat the Falcons. Upset No. 2: The Redskins,
surging with two consecutive victories, will make it three in a
row by beating the Seahawks. The Eagles, on the road this time,
will knock off the Cardinals, and the Titans will take a close
one from the Jaguars.

--Paul Zimmerman

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER The Browns must contain Thomas, who has had two straight 100-yard games.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)