Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy hasn't had much time to look at the big picture
They've treated this week as if it were any other during the season, even with the second NFC Championship Game in team history waiting at the end of it. That will be difficult to do on Friday, however, when the team's usual schedule takes a slight turn.
Because the National Football League has a '48-hour' rule for the conference championship games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are required to be in St. Louis two days before kickoff. That means a Friday exit, rather than the team's usual Saturday flight and, due to the potential of large crowds, a different departure point. Though the Buccaneers usually swings over to the airport from their One Buc Place practice facility, the team buses will leave from Raymond James Stadium at 2:00 p.m. on Friday.
Fans who would like to personally send the team off on Friday may park in Lot 6D to the south of the stadium and gather at Entrance C. Lot 6D will open at 10:00 a.m. On Sunday evening, the team will also return to Raymond James Stadium after landing at Tampa International Airport.
Still, Head Coach Tony Dungy has kept the routine, well, routine. "It will be a normal Friday, really," he said. "Nothing changes for us except that we have to leave early. Normally, we finish practice around 1:15 and the players have the rest of the day off. We have to fly out, but our routine as far as meetings and practice won't really change."
All of which means the historical significance of Sunday's affair hasn't had time to sink in. Tampa Bay has only been to the NFC Championship on one other occasion, exactly 20 years ago when the team lost to the then-Los Angeles Rams 9-0 in Tampa. With another shot two decades later, the Bucs are just 60 minutes from the first Super Bowl in franchise history. So does it feel like a bigger game?
"Not yet," said Dungy. "That probably will happen once we get to St. Louis and you have a little time to slow down Friday night and think about it. But, really, what we've done is said, 'Hey, this is another game and this is how we have to prepare.' It really hasn't hit me yet; I don't know about the players."
The team will have a little extra time in St. Louis to consider the significance of their trip, starting with some free time on Friday. It's a schedule that worked for the Bucs just three weeks ago in the season finale.
They'll be off Friday," said Dungy. "As much as we didn't like it, we got prepared for this when we went to Chicago. I was kind of groaning at the league for sending us up on Friday, but it's actually good preparation. We'll have the same schedule that we had up there in Chicago…Friday night off, early meetings then a walk-through. We'll be able to keep our same Saturday routine."
Actually, even with the magnitude of the game, there might be a little less hoopla surrounding the weekend than there was in Chicago. Because the game was on January 2, the team was forced to fly up on Friday in case the momentous New Year caused any travel difficulties on the first. As it turned out, the rollover to 2000 went by without a glitch, as did the Bucs' trip, which ended in a division title-clinching win at Soldier Field. "Yeah, we were a little concerned up in Chicago, we thought the world might come to an end. Fortunately it didn't, so we'll keep the same routine."
Several of the Buccaneers will have a little extra work to do before enjoying their free Friday evening. Dungy, QB Shaun King, FB Mike Alstott, LB Derrick Brooks and DT Warren Sapp will head directly from the St. Louis airport to the NFC Championship Game headquarters for a press conference with the assembled national media. Buccaneers.com will attend that press conference and report from St. Louis on Friday evening.