By Barry Federovitch
For the Chris Murray Report
When it comes to upsets, you will be hard pressed to find one historically more unlikely this season than Sunday’s Tampa Bay win over Pittsburgh.
Think that’s an overstatement?
Consider: the Steelers’ highest winning percentage against any franchise in the league before Sunday? .889 against the Bucs. Before the 27-24 shocker, the Bucs had not beaten the Steelers in 16 years (a 16-3 defensive struggle in Tampa late in the 1998 season). The Bucs were 1-8 all-time against the Steelers and were 0-3 in Pittsburgh.
A small sample size for sure. But Steelers-Bucs was the definition of a one-sided rivalry; late in 1976, when the expansion Bucs were arguably the worst team of all-time, they faced the Steel Curtain defense in Pittsburgh at the peak of its powers … And the results were predictable. Pittsburgh won 42-0 in a game that easily could have been 70-0. In the two games in Pittsburgh that followed, the Bucs not only didn’t win, but failed to score a touchdown, getting outscored 79-15 before Sunday.
Talk about putrid. Five field goals in 12 quarters in Pittsburgh. An average of 198 yards total offense in those three games or barely more than half the 350 the Bucs put up Sunday.
Had the Steelers known any of this they could be forgiven for being overconfident, particularly when they still had the lead in the fourth quarter. With Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator at home, the Steelers were 65-0 when leading in the fourth quarter before Mike Glennon’s five-yard touchdown toss to a diving Vincent Jackson with seven seconds left.
This not only gave the Bucs the most points they have ever scored in a game against the Steelers, but marked only the third time they ever managed to score more than 16 against them.
Fox producers were so sure that the Bucs wouldn’t win that with 1:35 to go they took a page out of NBC prematurely congratulating the Boston Red Sox for winning the 1986 World Series over the New York Mets; Fox flashed the graphic that NFL teams that start 3-1 make the playoffs 65 percent of the time and had Steelers 3-1 in bold underneath the stat.
Talk about a kiss of death.
In the bigger picture what will this mean? Maybe more for the Steelers than the Bucs, who must travel to New Orleans in Week Five. But if you’re Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith, could you ask for a more dramatic turnaround in 10 days following the humiliating 56-14 demolition at Atlanta?
When all three NFC South teams also lost on Sunday, it marked the first time in 106 games, going back to Game 10 of the 2007 season when the Bucs won and gained a game on all three division rivals. That’s pre-Greg Schiano, pre-Raheem Morris, going back to Jon Gruden’s next-to-last season in Tampa.
Since no one in the division owns a winning record, the Bucs, who entered Sunday with a minus-50 point differential, are back to within a game of first place and can move into a tie for the top spot with a win and losses by injury-riddled Carolina and Atlanta.
Not that the Bucs have had much of a chance to gain ground on anyone of late before Sunday, they were 11-34 over their previous 45 games. That’s not just a little slump; it’s the Bucs’ worst 45-game stretch since the Ray Perkins-Leeman Bennett days more than a quarter century ago.
And the Steelers against NFC South opponents? The polar opposite.
Fresh off a romp over the defending division champion Panthers, Pittsburgh was 32-11-1 all-time against the four NFC South teams. The majority of those 44 games weren’t scoring shootouts either; only seven times did teams that are now part of the NFC South score as many as 27 points in a game … And only twice ever in Pittsburgh (in a history that goes back to 1966).
One-game aberration? Fluke or change in longstanding trend? We will leave that for another day.
But to the Bucs’ delight and Steelers’ dismay, Sunday’s game turned history on its ear.