DT Warren Sapp and teammates are chasing a crucial bye this Sunday
Though it was the Green Bay teams of 1996 and 1997 that advanced to two straight Super Bowls, the 1995 Packers actually accomplished something that no other NFC team has done. That Green Bay squad started the '95 playoffs in the Wild Card round but was able to advance to the NFC Championship Game, where it eventually lost to Dallas. If those Packers were the exception that proved the rule, then here is the rule: the teams that earn the first-round byes in the NFC playoffs will be the ones playing in the NFC Championship Game.
Since 1990, when the playoffs expanded from five teams in each conference to six, 18 NFC teams have earned a first-round bye by virtue of being the two division winners with the best records. Of those 18 teams, 17 have won their first game after the bye, always a home game in the Divisional round, to advance to the NFC Championship Game. Green Bay knocked off San Francisco, 27-17, in Candlestick Park in 1995, but that one exception hardly diminishes the impact of this note.
Rather, it is clear that the Buccaneers can dramatically increase their chances of reaching their first Super Bowl by winning in Chicago on Sunday and earning the second of the NFC's two first-round byes. The Bucs could also gain that advantage with a loss and concurrent losses by Washington AND Minnesota, but would much prefer to write their own ticket to the Divisional round. A win would give the Bucs an 11-5 record and make them the number-two seed behind St. Louis, which will be either 14-2 or 13-3 after its season finale at Philadelphia.
"We realize how much of a benefit (the bye) is to us," said S John Lynch. "That's why we have maintained such a strong focus on Chicago. We know how important it is and what a great opportunity it would be for us. We see it; we're very aware of it. You want to put yourself in the best possible situation. Also, it would get us our first division championship, and that means a lot to the guys in this locker room."
DT Warren Sapp is well versed in the history of both the playoffs and the Bucs' limited participation in them. Two small, blue-and-white placards hang above the door heading into the team's locker room, bearing the years 1979 and 1981 and announcing Tampa Bay's two division championships. Gesturing towards the signs, Sapp spoke of what another title would mean to the current Buccaneers. "It has been done here in 18 years," he said, " so it would be something special to get another one. We want to erase those two markings on the wall and put up a nice, big red-and-pewter one.
"Since '90, there have been 18 byes and 17 home-team wins," he continued, obviously aware of the above note. "That bodes very well for the teams that can get one."
Though he is famously stoic on the sidelines and in the locker room, even Head Coach Tony Dungy is intrigued by the position his team could put itself in with a win. "Yes, I am extremely excited," he said, though it hasn't been betrayed by a change in his demeanor. "I've been coaching a long, long time and have never really been in a situation where you've got a chance to get a bye and get home field advantage. I've been with some good teams in Minnesota and Kansas City, but we never had this opportunity, so it's a nice time. It's an exciting time, but what you have to do is try to focus in on the job at hand. We still have a little bit more work to finish this week. If we win up in Chicago I think you'll see me let that emotion out a little next week."
That would certainly be a new experience for Bucs fans, as would a first-round bye. That situation has only happened on two other occasions in team history, those '79 and '81 seasons that still adorn the locker room wall. Tampa Bay won the NFC Central in 1979, waited for Philadelphia to emerge from the two Wild Card teams, then downed the Eagles in the Divisional Playoff round. Since the Los Angeles Rams upset the Dallas Cowboys in the other half of the Divisional round, Tampa Bay even got to host the NFC Championship Game, though the Rams burst that bubble, too, by downing the Bucs 9-0. In 1981, the Bucs again won the NFC Central, but in a different format than currently exists, were sent to Dallas in the Divisional round and ended up with a 38-0 loss.
Neither of those teams or situations bears too close of a resemblance to the current Bucs and their opportunity, but the 1999 team wants what their predecessors got, and what almost every NFC Championship game participant in the 1990s has enjoyed. The first-round bye is out there for the taking. "We just have to concentrate on going up there and getting the job done," said Sapp. "If we do, we get a bye week and homefield advantage, and you can't beat that."
History has got your back, Warren: you generally can't beat that.