- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked like they were back to being the bad old Bucs who missed the playoffs from 1983 to 1996. The Minnesota Vikings were the favorites to win the NFC North and picked by some to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in 29 seasons.

But two weeks into the season, the unbeaten Bucs are the NFL’s biggest surprise and the winless Vikings its biggest disappointment.

The Bucs posted a 12-20 record in the two seasons since they won the Super Bowl — the worst mark for a champion in that span. They have, however, turned it around thanks to the NFL’s top-ranked defense and second-ranked running attack.

The defense of coordinator Monte Kiffin ranked in the top 10 each season since 1997 and finished fifth last season. The difference so far this season is the unit, which has eight starters remaining from the Super Bowl XXXVII team, has been better against the run (first) than the pass (fourth). That, in part, can be attributed to the addition of tackle Chris Hovan, who was cut by the Vikings.

The offense, meanwhile, received a needed boost from rookie Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, who leads the league in rushing.

Williams joined the Colts’ Alan Ameche (1955) and the Lions’ Billy Sims (1980) as the only rookies in NFL history to rush for at least 125 yards in each of their first two games. In the process, he has greatly improved a rushing game that ranked 29th last season.

“Everybody I talked to in Alabama said, ‘This is the greatest running back in the history of high school football in Alabama. Better than Bo Jackson,’” said coach Jon Gruden, whose Bucs beat the Vikings 24-16 and the Bills 19-3. “Those kind of guys have a tendency to rev up the team and rev up the crowd and rev up the coach. He’s just a play away from making something big happen.”

The Bucs feel good, and the Vikings are befuddled.

The Vikings reached the second round of the playoffs last season despite a defense that ranked 28th. That unit added cornerback Fred Smoot, tackle Pat Williams, linebackers Sam Cowart and Napoleon Harris and safety Darren Sharper in the offseason only to play worse.

The Vikings surrendered 504 yards Sunday in a 37-8 thrashing by the Bengals, as the defense’s ranking dropped to 30th.

More shocking is the performance of the offense, which figured to carry on just fine after the trade of its malcontent superstar, receiver Randy Moss. Instead, quarterback Daunte Culpepper has thrown for no touchdowns and eight interceptions and fumbled twice — a shocking turnabout for a player who posted a 39-11 touchdown-interception ratio last season.

“We have to play within ourselves,” Vikings coach Mike Tice said in a none-too-subtle dig at his quarterback. “You try to make things happen, it tends to snowball and make things worse.”

Also making things worse is the status of Nate Burleson, the Vikings’ new No. 1 receiver. Burleson is listed as doubtful for Sunday’s game against the Saints (1-1). If the Vikings lose to the Saints and drop to 0-4 the next week at Atlanta, Tice’s job is in jeopardy.

Tice has a one-year contract, and he could be canned during the subsequent bye week by front office boss Rob Brzezinski and new owner Zygi Wilf.

Lessons learned

Willie Parker always has been fast. It’s just that he has had little opportunity to show it.

Parker raced — seemingly from nowhere — for an AFC-high 272 yards in the Steelers’ season-opening routs of the Titans and Texans.

Parker split time at North Carolina and carried just 32 times as an undrafted rookie last season — albeit for 186 yards.

This season, he stepped in for injured Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley and posted the best two-game performance of any running back in the conference.

And he is getting better because he’s learning from veterans like Bettis.

“Usually, a younger player has a tendency to be quick,” Bettis said. “And really fast guys have a tendency to be overly fast. That speed, it puts them at a disadvantage because they have to be able to see [the hole] and go. You can get there too fast and [the play] hasn’t developed. Patience. You have to teach it, preach it.”

Parker’s newfound patience will be tested by the Super Bowl champion Patriots on Sunday in a rematch of last season’s AFC Championship game.

The Patriots’ formidable run defense, burned by Bettis and Staley for 190 yards Oct. 31, held them to 90 in the playoffs.

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