In Control of The South

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got a big lift from their backup quarterback last week to take control of the NFC South. This week, Bucs coach Jon Gruden hopes his starting quarterback can help Tampa Bay clinch it.

The surging Bucs look to win their fifth straight game and secure their second NFC South title in three years when they visit the Houston Texans on Sunday.

Oddsmakers from Bodog have made Tampa Bay PK point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday's game, the over/under has been set at 40.5 total points (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 90% of bets for this game have been placed on Tampa PK (View NFL Football bet percentages).

The Bucs (8-4) reached the midway point of the season with a .500 record, but last week's 27-24 win over New Orleans gave them a comfortable three-game lead in the division.

Tampa Bay is 4-0 in divisional play and can clinch the South with a victory or losses by New Orleans and Carolina. The Bucs, who last won the division in 2005, have not had a five-game winning streak since Sept. 15-Oct. 13, 2002 - the season they captured their only Super Bowl title.

"We are in the driver's seat now," running back Earnest Graham said.

Tampa Bay moved to the verge of another division crown last week without starting quarterback Jeff Garcia, who was out after suffering a deep back bruise in a 19-13 win over Washington on Nov. 25. Backup Luke McCown replaced Garcia and had an outstanding performance.

In his first start since Dec. 26, 2004, McCown completed his first 15 passes and finished 29-of-37 for a career-high 313 yards and two touchdowns, including a winning 4-yard TD pass to Jerramy Stevens with 17 seconds remaining. The Bucs amassed a season-high 466 yards after gaining only 192 against the Redskins.

"We tried to not play defensive with a young quarterback playing in his first game in a long time. Luke McCown responded,'' Gruden said.

Despite leading Tampa Bay to an important victory, McCown is expected to return to his backup role with Garcia likely to play Sunday.

Gruden said there's nothing structurally wrong with Garcia's back, and if he's healthy enough to play, he'll start.

"He's a needed guy on our football team," Gruden said. "We need to win another game. We're in the fight of our lives to win every Sunday, and this week is no different."

Garcia, 2-of-4 for nine yards before getting hurt against Washington, threw for 355 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in the first two games of the Bucs' winning streak. Garcia, who didn't throw an interception in 10 of his 11 games this season, has never faced the Texans.

Tampa Bay got another strong game from Graham last Sunday, as he rushed for 106 yards and a touchdown. Graham has scored a TD in each of his last four games, running for 407 yards in those contests.

The Bucs have also been winning with shutdown defense. Tampa Bay leads the NFC with 291.8 yards allowed per game and is second in the NFL in scoring defense (15.6 points per game).

The Bucs, who allowed just 246 yards against the Saints, have also forced 13 turnovers during their winning streak. They'll be facing a Texans team that's turned the ball over a league-high 31 times.

Houston (5-7) had two costly fourth-quarter giveaways in last week's 28-20 loss to Tennessee.

"We have to stop making mistakes,'' defensive end Mario Williams said. "We all have to take a step back and look at one another and ourselves.''

The Texans opened the season with consecutive victories, but have won just three of 10 games since and have little chance of making the playoffs.

That task appeared to get even more difficult last Sunday, as quarterback Matt Schaub left the game in the first quarter with a dislocated left shoulder and will likely be out this week.

Sage Rosenfels replaced Schaub and went 17-of-30 for 185 yards, one touchdown and an interception. In his only start this season, Rosenfels was 11-of-19 for 181 yards, one TD and one pick in a 24-17 win over Oakland on Nov. 4.

Ron Dayne rushed for 86 yards and a touchdown against the Titans as the Texans continued to revive their once-struggling ground game. They've rushed for an average of 118.4 yards in their last five games after averaging 60.2 in their previous five.

Houston will try to continue its strong running against a Bucs defense that's limiting opponents to 69.0 rushing yards a game during the winning streak.

In the only meeting between Tampa Bay and Houston on Dec. 14, 2003, the Bucs held the Texans to 107 yards in a 16-3 win.

By: Staff Writers - Email Us

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