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With their defense again playing like one of the best in the league, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have seized control of the weak NFC South.
The Buccaneers look to win their third straight game and move closer to their second division title in three years when they host the struggling Washington Redskins on Sunday.
Tampa Bay (6-4) defeated Atlanta 31-7 last Sunday, and coupled with losses by Carolina and defending division champion New Orleans, took a two-game lead over both the Panthers and the Saints.
“We’ve got a lot of guys on our football team who know how to win, expect to win and come in here every day preparing to win,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. “The same with the coaches. We realize that we have six wins and that doesn’t guarantee us anything. But we are seeing signs of improvement, and for that we’re excited to get back to work.”
The Bucs have quickly put a disappointing 2006 behind them, as they went 4-12 and ranked 17th in the league in defense. Tampa Bay has always been a team that’s thrived on a defense that was among the NFL’s stingiest for nine straight years before last season’s aberration.
The defense is coming off its best game of this season, as the unit had a season-high four sacks, forced a season-high four turnovers and scored on Ronde Barber’s 41-yard fumble return.
The Bucs lead the NFC in scoring defense (15.1 points per game) and total defense (285.1 yards per game) and kept the Falcons out of the end zone for nearly 59 minutes. They allowed just 49 yards rushing last week, and have yielded only 72 yards on the ground on 31 attempts in their last two games.
“Our defense was awesome,” quarterback Jeff Garcia said. “You can’t say enough about the way our defense is playing.”
The Bucs have also been taking advantage of an improved running game.
Earnest Graham had his second straight 100-yard rushing game last week, gaining 102 yards on 17 carries and running for a 26-yard touchdown. Graham became the starting running back in Week 6 because of injuries to Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and Michael Pittman, and is averaging 95 yards in his last four games.
Garcia completed 10 of 20 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns last Sunday, and has thrown for 2,126 yards, 11 TDs and only three interceptions on the season.
In his last game against Washington on Dec. 10, Garcia was 15-of-23 for 164 yards and two TDs in a 21-19 win for Philadelphia.
The Bucs beat Washington 20-17 last Nov. 19, and this will be the fifth straight season they meet. Tampa Bay has won two in a row overall in the series and five straight at home since Washington’s 23-17 win on Dec. 5, 1993.
Tampa Bay is 4-1 at Raymond James Stadium this season, while Washington has dropped three of its last four on the road.
The Redskins (5-5) lost for the third time in four games overall last Sunday, 28-23 to Dallas. Washington is tied with Philadelphia for last in the NFC East, but is only one game out of a wild-card spot.
The Redskins have not been to the playoffs since 2005, when they beat Tampa Bay before losing to Seattle in a divisional game.
“Maybe we can win five in a row like we did in ’05,” kick returner Rock Cartwright said. “Right now we’re just focusing on one.”
Washington enters this week eighth in the league in rushing (125.1 ypg), but managed only 62 yards on the ground against the Cowboys after racking up 454 in its previous two weeks.
Clinton Portis had 36 yards on 12 carries last Sunday, but has gained 292 yards on 52 attempts and scored two TDs in two career games against the Bucs.
While their rushing attack struggled against Dallas, the Redskins opened up their passing game. Jason Campbell had the best game of his brief career, going 33-of-54 for a career-high 348 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
“I think what came out of the game was this: We can throw the ball pretty good if we have to,” coach Joe Gibbs said. “So that’s a good thing. You don’t want to be throwing it that much - that’s a bad thing. You want to have balance in what you do.”
Campbell has thrown for 563 yards, five TDs and just one pick in his last two games. This will be Campbell’s 18th career start, and he made his NFL debut in Tampa last November, going 19-of-34 for 196 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
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