JUDGE: Need-to-know guide for this weekend's games

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Clark Judge

I knew Steve Mariucci would be going to Tampa Bay. I just didn't know it would take him a year to get there.

The ' coach could've been running the Bucs this season but stayed where he was when negotiations fell through last February. Basically, Mariucci decided he didn't want to leave the , which led to Tampa's hiring of Jon Gruden, then with the Oakland ... and is everybody happy?

I hope so. The Bucs won a team-record 12 games with Gruden. The won the NFC West for the first time since 1997. And the Oakland , Gruden's former employer, are four draft picks and $8 million richer for letting Gruden go.

Oh, yeah, they're also the best team in the AFC.

"I haven't thought much about the irony of it," said Mariucci, meeting Gruden for the first time since the beat San Francisco in overtime in October 2000. "I really haven't thought about it until now. I have more vivid memories of Steve Young and getting hurt than any conversations I had with the Glazers (the Bucs' owners)."

Young and Rice were stars on the first San Francisco team Mariucci coached, and both were hurt in their first game under their new coach. It was in Tampa, and it happened in September 1997. Young suffered a concussion, Rice tore knee ligaments, yet somehow Mariucci overcame both setbacks to lead the to the NFC championship game.

"An unforgettable experience," he said of his NFL debut. "But we're in a different stadium now. It's a different coach. And it'll be a different game."

He can only hope. The lost Mariucci's opener 13-6, and they're expected to lose to Tampa again Saturday — with the Bucs a 5-1/2 point favorite. Maybe it happens, I don't know. All I know is that Mariucci is happy to get to Florida ... only as the coach of the San Francisco .

"I'm glad for Jon," he said of Gruden, a friend of Mariucci's. "It's a job he really wanted. You know how when people move they're excited to be doing it? Well, Jon was. You've got to do it for the right reasons, and I'm glad he got a chance. It just didn't feel right for me. It's that simple. And it did for Jon."

No matter what happens against Tampa Bay, Mariucci's future will be a subject of speculation again, as it was a year ago. He has a year left on a contract that pays $2.1 million annually, and the club will talk to him about an extension once the season ends. Some people would have you believe he saved his job with last week's come-from-behind win over the New York , but there's as much validity to that as there was to reports that Mariucci was off to Tampa a year ago.

Pure and simple, the guy wants to stay, and the team's owners don't want him to go. Interest isn't the problem here, but money could be. And I'm not talking only about Mariucci. I'm talking about assistant coaches whom Mariucci wants to retain and whose contracts are about to expire. I'm also talking about keeping and signing significant players, and both could be troublesome for a club that is cash poor.

I know, the escaped salary-cap purgatory a couple of years back, but it's cash — not the cap — that's more the concern now. The club was supposed to have a new stadium by now, but the project hasn't gone anywhere for years, and the lost revenue is penalizing the club.

I don't know if the keep Mariucci. I know they should. Mariucci said he's happy Gruden got the job, but the should be happy, too. They kept their coach. They're two wins shy of the Super Bowl, and, yeah, I know they got lucky a week ago. But they also got lucky a year ago.

The line: Tampa by 5 1/2

For San Francisco to win: The must control the offensive line of scrimmage. I think back to Pittsburgh's opening drive in a Dec. 23 victory over Tampa Bay, and the moved the length of the field because their front five handled everything the Bucs threw at them. There's one guy here who can take the ball 80 yards in one play, and it's . If the can protect Garcia, he can get the ball to Owens, and Owens can take over. Remember, Pittsburgh has a receiver who's similar in size and strength, and that's , and he burned Tampa for five catches and 127 yards.

For Tampa Bay to win: The Bucs will have to create turnovers and produce big plays on defense. They led the league in interceptions with 31, and they'll have to force San Francisco to go somewhere other than . I don't care that Tampa can't move the ball, and I don't worry about . Its defense is the league's best, with speed second to none, and it can suffocate an opponent.

I'll take: San Francisco

Pittsburgh at Tennessee

The last time was here he was knocked out of the game. Literally. A blow by linebacker left Maddox with a concussion and spinal contusion and sidelined him two weeks. People want to know what impact that experience has Maddox this time around. Here's your answer: Nothing. Maddox has made five starts since, and the second half against Cleveland should tell you how he's doing. Tennessee is the league's hottest team, and the have the benefit of a week's rest. That's good. But this isn't: Defensive end re-injured his left foot this week and didn't finish a practice. Plus, while the are vulnerable to opponents that throw, passing is not what Tennessee's about. Quarterback hasn't had a 200-yard passing game in a month. The are the league's best at stopping the run, which is where this game will be determined. It's and McNair against the ' front seven.

The line: Tennessee by 4.

For Pittsburgh to win: The must reduce their errors and control McNair. He shouldn't beat them with his arm; he can beat them with his legs. Pittsburgh doesn't need another 360-yard passing game from Maddox; it needs to control the ball with an offense that plays patiently and flawlessly.

For Tennessee to win: The must put a lid on wide receiver . They did in that Nov. 17 victory, but, remember, Maddox was injured that game. They didn't last year when he caught 14 passes for 265 yards against them. Cornerback has something to prove, and this is his chance.

I'll take: Tennessee

Atlanta at Philadelphia

Atlanta cornerback said he'd rather face a gimpy than a healthy . Well, now he has his wish, though the last time anyone looked McNabb was running without a hiccup. McNabb plays for the first time since breaking his ankle in a Nov. 17 win over Arizona, and he's in a rare position — he doesn't have to be the playmaker. If McNabb merely manages the position, as and Feeley did while he was away, the ' defense and special teams will carry them. The ' task is basic: Stop . won't beat you. won't, either. Neither will , and I have a tape of Atlanta's last two offensive plays of the regular season to offer as proof. Nope, it's all up to Vick, and I'll take a defense that led the league in sacks, was second in points allowed and fourth overall — especially when Jim Johnson runs it — over a quarterback in his first season as a starter.

The line: Philadelphia by 7 1/2

For Atlanta to win win: It's not 's arm that could beat Philadelphia, it's his legs. The guy not only led the club in first downs rushing and touchdowns rushing, he buys time in the pocket with an extraordinary ability to dodge tacklers. The will lock up their cornerbacks on Atlanta's receivers, which means Vick could have room to roam on the outside. The key is finding a way to get there.

For Philadelphia to win: Don't screw up. Green Bay lost because it had five turnovers and a punt blocked. Dominate the line of scrimmage, too. The have a 1,000-yard back in . Take advantage of him against a small but quick defensive line. Oh yeah, don't miss tackles either — especially when Vick is the target. Two weeks ago, the missed a lot of them, and the New York ran for over 200 yards in a 10-7 win.

I'll take: Philadelphia.

New York at Oakland

This is the fourth time in 20 games the have been here, so they know all about going down the Black Hole. New York lost here Dec. 2 when it kept checking the in the red zone, and the were close enough at the end that the game came down to the final play. The are better and more confident now, and I can explain in two words: . Since the 26-20 loss to Oakland, he's thrown 12 touchdowns and no interceptions, with the club destroying New England, Green Bay and Indianapolis the past three weeks. Pennington's near-perfect performances have as much impact on the rejuvenated ' defense as they do on opponents. Fewer mistakes mean longer possessions, which means more time off for Pennington's defensive teammates. But let's stop for a reality check: It will take a near-perfect performance to beat Oakland. The are rested, they have more talent and they're rolling — winning seven of their last eight. Plus, they beat the in the playoffs here a year ago, and have the league's MVP in .

The line: Oakland by 5 1/2.

For New York to win: Pennington has to play as he has the last month. No mistakes. Big plays. Long drives. Use the short and intermediate passing game to set up . It's not the ' defense that can stop the ; it's the ' offense.

For Oakland to win: Don't get caught short of the goal line. In their only meeting with New York this year, the had 411 yards and only two TDs. They also had 10 penalties. Nevertheless, they scored four of the last five times they had the ball.

I'll take: Oakland.

Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address,

Tagged: Falcons, Titans, Raiders, Giants, Jets, Eagles, 49ers, Buccaneers, Steelers, Michael Vick, Brian Finneran, Samari Rolle, Jevon Kearse, Keith Bulluck, Jerry Rice, Curtis Martin, Chad Pennington, Donovan McNabb, A.J. Feeley, Duce Staley, Plaxico Burress, Terrell Owens, Derrick Deese, Tommy Maddox

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