One of the lineup decisions the Bucs will have to make on Sunday is whether or not to keep WR/PR Mark Jones active
Last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers helped the New York Giants move into first place in the NFC East. Now they'll try to knock them out of that top spot.
The Bucs' last-second win over Philadelphia gave the Giants a chance to seize the East, and they did so by mauling the Dallas Cowboys the next night, moving to 4-2 on the strength of a three-game winning streak. Both the Eagles (4-3) and the Cowboys (3-3) could catch the Giants this weekend, however, if the Bucs push their own winning streak to three games.
Before the Philadelphia game, the Buccaneers played Cincinnati, who is currently tied atop the AFC North at 4-2. Before that it was New Orleans (5-1), the leader in the NFC South. Keep rewinding the schedule and you'll find Atlanta (4-2), Carolina (4-3) and Baltimore (4-2). After this week's trip to the Meadowlands, the Buccaneers will run into the Panthers and Saints again.
So, yeah, it's been quite a ride. And this weekend might be as tough as it gets, considering the Bucs are about to run into the league's leading rusher, Tiki Barber, on his home turf. Professional athletes often say they want to play against the best in order to prove that they are the best. The Bucs are getting that opportunity, and enjoying it, believe it or not.
"We've arguably had the hardest schedule in football," said Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden. "It seems like every week we've seen some really good players, now. The Giants fall right in line with a lot of the others we've seen, only their running back is exceptionally hot right now. They have a bevy of skilled people and Tom Coughlin drives them hard. You can tell they know what they're doing. It will be a great challenge for us."
Arguably? Well, you could argue, but you'd have to do it subjectively. Objectively, the numbers say the Bucs have played the league's toughest schedule by a healthy margin. Tampa Bay opponents have a combined winning percentage of .658 to this point, and that's not a product of having played the 2-4 Bucs. Every team the Bucs have played or will play in the next three weeks is either in first place in its division or within a game of first.
Here are the five teams that have played the toughest schedules so far:
|**Team**||**Opp. Win Pct.**||**Opp. W-L**|
This week's opponent, the Giants, have also played a difficult schedule. In fact, if you remove the games that included the Bucs and Giants from their opponents' win-loss records, both would go to 21-11. The Giants lost early games to Indianapolis and Seattle to start out 1-2 but have surged back to the top of the East. The Bucs built a larger hole, going 0-4 despite strong outings against Carolina and New Orleans, but believe they're back on the winning track as well.
"We've lost some heartbreaking games, you know what I mean?" said Gruden. "We lost some heartbreakers. We could easily have four wins right now in my opinion. We've played a heck of a schedule, the hardest schedule in football, and we lost our quarterback, we lost our right tackle. A lot of things have happened to us negatively. It's a credit to our guys and our coaches for hanging in there. We'll see what happens in the end. But I'm proud of our guys, the way they fight. We've got a lot of fights left to fight, too, because we have a heck of a schedule left."
The Bucs have elected to think of the season as a series of four quarters and they're 2-0 so far in the second quarter. Two thrilling, last-minute victories in a row propelled the Bucs to a very energetic string of workouts in preparation for the latest challenge.
"We had a very good week of practice, a spirited week," said Gruden after Friday's 90-minute session. "The weather, I think, helped us out a little bit, too. It wasn't as horribly hot as it was the previous two weeks. We've had three really good practices and I'm excited. I'm excited to see how we play against a very good team on the road."
Ellis Wyms returned to practice on Friday after missing the previous two workouts, leaving quarterback Chris Simms as the only Buccaneer who didn't get in at least some field time this week. Simms is out indefinitely after his September 24 splenectomy.
Wyms, who is recovering from an ankle injury suffered last weekend, is one of five starters listed as questionable on the Bucs' official injury report. The others are tight end Anthony Becht (foot), cornerback Juran Bolden (hip), linebacker Shelton Quarles (knee) and defensive end Simeon Rice (shoulder). Also questionable are reserve wide receivers Mark Jones (hamstring) and Maurice Stovall (back). Bolden missed Wednesday's practice but has joined the team on the field the last two days.
The Bucs are hopeful that their aching players will continue to improve over the weekend and be able to suit up on Sunday.
"The injury report is the same as it has been," said Gruden. "We won't make any changes. We'll just cross our fingers and hope some of the guys who are questionable are able to play."
Whether or not Jones plays could depend on more than just his tweaked hamstring. With other punt return options like Ike Hilliard, Joey Galloway and, now, Phillip Buchanon available, the Bucs could choose to save a spot on their 45-man active list for another player.
"I'll say this: Jamie Winborn has really helped our team and I think he's got a great future here as a linebacker," Gruden explained. "I like having him active. So how many receivers we choose to go with will be largely dependent on health and what we want to do in the kicking game."
Unlike the Bucs, the Giants did make a handful of changes to their injury report on Friday. Two players, safety Jason Bell and linebacker Carlos Emmons, saw their chances to play on Sunday improve when they were upgraded from questionable to probable. Bell was suffering from a concussion and Emmons hasn't played since Week Three thanks to pectoral injury.
Emmons' return could come at a good time for the Giants, who lost linebacker LaVar Arrington to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury on Monday night and on Friday added linebacker Brandon Short to the injury report. Emmons started the first three games of the season at weakside linebacker, and Short has started the last three games at that position. Arrington was the starter on the strong side. Short is considered probable for the game with a knee injury.
Rookie wide receiver Sinorice Moss was downgraded from questionable to out on Friday due to his quad injury. Moss has played in only one game this season, against Philadelphia in Week Two.
Two other defensive starters for the Giants, cornerback Sam Madison and defensive end Osi Umenyiora remained questionable on the injury report. Neither participated in any of the team's practices this week.
Additional Thoughts from Coach Gruden
The Bucs' coach touched on a variety of other topics during the week.
On Torrie Cox playing a larger role with Brian Kelly out for the season: "Well, BK's been gone, you know what I mean? It's not like his role has changed. He's still playing critical snaps. He's seen some of the best wideouts in football. He's going to see more of the same this week. He's played well for us, he really has. He's getting better. I think his playing time has helped him. He's distinguished himself as a guy we know can play. We'd like to see him get on the scoreboard here with an interception of his own. We need more big plays and he's a guy we're counting on to give them to us."
On what he sees in Eli Manning's progress: "I see steady improvement. We know he has the great physical tools, and he's playing with great confident and poise. That's a credit to him, a credit to Coach [Tom] Coughlin. They've done a nice job with their scheme. They've got a lot of really good talent there. The tight end is a heck of a player. [Plaxico] Burress is a big-play guy. No one talks about [Amani] Toomer anymore, but he's still one great receiver. And they've got this guy Barber who drives us all crazy. They've got a lot of going for them offensively between running the ball with great success and a real good scheme with a maturing, on-the-rise quarterback."
On how important Ronde Barber is to the Bucs' defensive scheme: "He's very important. He's a leader here, he's a captain here, he's a playmaker here. He's got a lot of football left in him. I have a lot of confidence in where he's going in the future as a football player. These Barbers, they'll let us know when they're ready to retire. I wish Tiki the best and, like I said earlier this week, I wish he would retire before kickoff of our game."
On Stovall's development: "It has slowed down. His development is very slow right now. He's got a sore back and he's been inactive a lot here in the last few weeks. But he's a great kid with a lot of talent. We're counting on him, but he's got to get healthy so he can compete and contribute to our team."
On Tiki Barber remaining good at an age when many running backs tail off: "Some guys are great and they're able to sustain that kind of play for long periods of time. You've got to put him up there with some of the greats of all time. Greatness – that's what he has. He's very blessed and he's a tremendous worker. There's no question about that. This guy must be some kind of freak, he and his brother, in the offseason because they continue to get better."
On Luke McCown's progress: "Pretty good, yeah pretty good. He ran two or three sets of plays today and I think that was good for him. His mobility looks okay and I think his confidence level is the most important thing right now and it's coming back."
On what message he gave the players after the team's 0-4 start: "Nobody died. Let's just keep things in perspective. We've got a good football team, we're working hard, good things are going to happen. I don't remember how I said it. We're not alone. There are a lot of people who are struck with adversity in life and in football and in this league, that's for sure. If you can hang in there, I said, look back in two weeks there will be two or three other teams in the same spot we're in right now. And that's the case again. You've got to be mentally tough, man. People are going to say things about you and you're going to be behind in the standings, going to be behind on the scoreboard. I say the heck with it – do what the Minnesota Twins did. Keep going out every night, playing, and see if you can catch up."
On how the team will prepare for the winds at the Meadowlands: "Well, we're going to have an early bus. As soon as we got off the plane in New York or New Jersey, wherever we're going, we'll take a bus over to the Meadowlands and play catch in the wind so we get acclimated to it. It's hard to prepare for it. It swirls there. There are rumors that they open up the end zone gates and let it fly when you've got the ball. That's the way it goes. Bruce Gradkowski will get to experience a lot of things this year for the first time and fortunately for him he'll get to experience the Meadowlands and the mystique behind it."