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TAMPA BAY LOOKS TO BUC ROLLING RAMS, ODDSMAKERS

Tampa Bay's outstanding defense faces an Everest-sized challenge today: Stop one of the hottest offenses in NFL history.

Oddsmakers aren't giving the Buccaneers much of a chance. The high-flying St. Louis Rams are an overwhelming 14-point favorite for the NFC Championship Game in the Trans World Dome.

You get a feeling the Rams don't think much of the Bucs' chances, either.

Rams Pro Bowl receiver Isaac Bruce fired a shot Friday at his Tampa adversary, Pro Bowl safety John Lynch.

"Anybody can stop the run and hit what they see," Bruce said of Lynch. "Let's see him cover us. . . . Lynch is the guy who probably thinks he can put us on our backs. I don't think he can."

"They feel very good about themselves," Lynch said. "I've never heard a head coach say, 'I can't find a weakness in my team,' like (St. Louis') Dick Vermeil said. But you know what? We feel good about ourselves, too."

The Buccaneers' defense allowed the third-fewest yards in the NFL this year, yielded the fewest touchdowns and the fewest first downs in the league.

But the Rams are on such a roll, it's hard to see anybody stopping them.

St. Louis is averaging 34 points per game and has scored 30 or more in its last seven games. Tampa Bay hasn't scored 34 once this year and is averaging a mere 16.7. The Bucs' prescription for an upset today is to run the ball and control the clock on offense and avoid big plays on defense.

Few teams have been able to stop the Rams' fleet receivers -- Bruce, Torry Holt, Az-Zahir Hakim -- and running back Marshall Faulk from breaking big gainers on runs after the catch.

"It's kind of like back in college in the days when teams tried to prepare for Oklahoma," Dungy said. "You can simulate what they do in practice, but you can't do it at the speed and precision that they do it."

To the Bucs' credit, their big defensive strength this year has been the ability to prevent the big play. They do not gamble. They usually get a decent pass rush with four men. They often stop the run without bringing an eighth man up, although Lynch is a hard hitter in run support. They force teams to try to sustain long drives. Cover-Two is their defense of choice.

"We play two deep safeties and five guys underneath and let our front four rush," Lynch said. "Our corners are asked to be good tacklers, and they do it well. We have fast linebackers in Derrick Brooks and Hardy Nickerson. Our linebackers do a great job of making tackles in the open field underneath."

Sure tackling by defenders in zone coverage is one key for the Bucs. Physical play at the line of scrimmage by their cornerbacks may be another.

The Bucs also probably need a huge game from tackle Warren Sapp, the NFL's defensive player of the year. Quick pressure up the middle in the face of Rams quarterback Kurt Warner would throw off the St. Louis timing routes.

"As long as we make them earn every yard they get," Sapp said, "then one of our 11 playmakers is going to get them somewhere along the way."

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