Friday, Oct. 17, 2003 | 10:13 a.m.
Sal DeFilippo's pro football picks column appears Friday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (702) 259-4076.
First, they blew a key division game because they couldn't make an extra point on the final play of regulation.
A few weeks later, they watched a 21-point lead dissolve in the final four minutes of a game, the biggest such choke in NFL history. Against their old coach, no less.
So how should these events make the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers feel six weeks into the season?
They ought to feel pretty good, I'd say. Really good, in fact.
Here's why: Two overtime losses are nothing when you consider what's happened to the other 11 playoff teams from last season. Compared to most of them, the Bucs are in great shape.
It used to be that when a team was Super Bowl-caliber, you could expect to see them in the hunt for a few seasons. That was before free agency, of course. Before the nifty computer-generated first-down line. Even before instant replay. (Side note: Remember when replay was an referred to as an "experiment" -- as if it were something you tried in college?
Well, a child born the same year as the instant replay was born would be almost college-age -- the system was first implemented in the NFL 17 years ago.)
Nowadays, dynasties aren't so simple. Just ask the Patriots, Ravens and Rams -- the three Super Bowl winners before Tampa Bay. None of those teams even made the playoffs last year.
It seems to be a struggle just to repeat as a playoff team. For example, look at the Bucs' Super Bowl opponents, the Oakland Raiders. Some older players may refuse to hang 'em up, but after another uninspired effort at Cleveland dropped Oakland to 2-4, the team appears to have done it for them.
But Oakland certainly isn't alone. The Jets, last year's AFC East champs, started 0-4 before breaking into the win column last week, and the AFC North champion Steelers are 2-4 heading into this week's bye. One of last year's wild-card teams, Cleveland, started slowly and is hovering at 3-3.
The same is true in the NFC, where the Eagles and Giants battle this week for the right to stay within two games of ... Dallas? Philadelphia and New York, each 2-3, were in the postseason last year, along with San Francisco (2-4), Green Bay (3-3) and Atlanta, which won its opener but has since lost five in a row.
From last year's playoff crop, only the Bucs, unbeaten Indianapolis and Tennessee have winning records.
Meanwhile, teams such as Kansas City, Miami, Denver, Carolina, Minnesota and Dallas are jockeying into a possible playoff position. But it's certainly too early to anoint any of these clubs as shoo-ins, or to discount the struggling franchises.
Especially in the modern what-team-goes-up, must-come-down NFL.
Picks: A 1-2 week against the number puts the season ledger at 7-11. Slurpee, anyone? This week, I'll take the Chargers plus 5 1/2 against the Browns, the Titans plus 1 1/2 against the Panthers and the Patriots plus 5 1/2 against the Dolphins.