The Pro Football Notebook

November 24, 2010 8:28 AM

Sunshine State Cinderellas

JoshFreeman.jpgNo one had any expectations for Tampa Bay or Jacksonville when the season started. Yet with six weeks to go, both teams are in contention for division titles and in dead heats with the participants in last year's Super Bowl. Tampa is 7-3 and tied with New Orleans for second in the NFC South, both a game back of Atlanta. Jacksonville is 6-4 and that's good enough to be tied with Indianapolis for the lead in the AFC South. What are the odds for either of them to make an unlikely playoff appearance?

A surface glance at Tampa's schedule tells you they can beat bad or average teams, but can't handle good ones. They've had three big tests this year and have been beaten by Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Atlanta. Their best wins have been over Cleveland and St. Louis. They're scoring margin for the entire year is 209-206, an average of less than one point per win. But a dig below the surface shows that some of those early wins, while not eye-catching have helped this team grow. The last two weeks they've stepped up and really handled bad teams--wins over Carolina and San Francisco have been by a combined 52-16. Their loss to Atlanta three weeks ago in the Georgia Dome was a tough 27-21 game--a far cry from the earlier games with New Orleans and Pittsburgh at home when they lost by 25 points each time. Raheem's Morris team is clearly improving and they'll need it with Baltimore and Atlanta ahead, plus a road trip to New Orleans to end the year. They do it with conservatism--they run the ball well with a two-pronged attack of Lazaretto Blount and Cadillac Williams, and defensively they drop eight men into coverage. Then they let clutch quarterback Josh Freeman pull it out at the end. It's tough to win that way against really good teams and we're about to find out if Tampa can take the next step.

In September, Jacksonville lost back-to-back games to San Diego and Philadelphia by a combined score of 66-16. They later lost back-to-backs to Tennessee and Kansas City by a combined 72-23. They are the ultimate in survivor team right now, having nipped Cleveland last week and used a desperation pass to beat Houston the previous week. The Jags do it by running the ball with Maurice Jones-Drew and they're in the middle of the league in getting sacks. The problem is they just turn the ball over too much--they are (-11) in turnover differential and the next four weeks sees road trips to the New York Giants, Tennessee and Indianapolis. They just have so many things that have to be improved--the entire defense, plus the ability of David Garrard to take care of the ball, that I just don't see how we're still talking about this team by Christmas .

Neither team was one we'd even expected to be talking about at Thanksgiving tough, and for that they both deserve their just due.

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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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