S John Lynch says the Bucs and Rams don't shy away from their dislike for each other
On the 31-city NFL landscape, Tampa and St. Louis seem like unlikely rivals. The Buccaneers and Rams are neither geographically nor divisionally linked, and they played only sparingly through much of the 1990s. Neither team enjoyed much success in the late 1980s or early 1990s, with each only rising to prominence shortly before the turn of the century.
In fact, after the NFC Championship game following the 1979 season, no game of notable consequence was played between the Bucs and the Rams until the calendar read 2000.
But the intensity of the Bucs-Rams rivalry was born quickly in the crucible of the 1999 NFC Championship Game (in January of 2000) and the Monday night rematch that followed the next winter. Since most of the Bucs and a good percentage of the Rams (particularly on offense) remain from those two games, the not-necessarily-fond feelings for each other from those two games remain fresh and raw on both sides.
Even the Bucs' extremely level-headed and mild-mannered (off the field) John Lynch acknowledges the intensity of the feelings.
"We both want to beat the heck out of each other," said Lynch.
Now, those might seem like serious words coming from a man acknowledged as one of the league's hardest hitters, but Lynch is anticipating a physical but clean game. A small bit of ill will may have spilled onto the field right after the Rams' 11-6 win in the championship game, but the 2000 rematch was a hard-fought and respectful battle. The 38-35 Bucs win last December resembled two heavyweight fighters matching each other blow for blow and enjoying the bout.
"I think there is a tremendous respect on both sides but when you have that much respect and you've competed that hard against each other it doesn't necessarily make very well for liking each other," he explained. "I think that shows on the field and it's something we are not going to shy away from. In fact, it's something we embrace."
Even players who didn't share in the writing of the rivalry are looking forward to the next chapter.
"I've watched those two ball games the past two years on TV, I've seen what was at stake those past two times," said Bucs QB Brad Johnson, who was with the Washington Redskins in 1999 and 2000. "Two different type of games, one was 11-6 and the other was 38-35 so hopefully we'll be somewhere in the middle of that. It's going to be an exciting game especially on Monday night. Regardless of what day you're playing them on or where you're playing them at we just have to go out there and find a way to win."
In Johnson's finishing words lies the difference between the two games that started this current rivalry and next Monday's affair. The '99 playoff meeting was, obviously, an elimination game, with the loser going home and the winner going to the Super Bowl. Both teams ended up in the playoffs again the following year, but at the time, the Monday night game on December 18 was expected to propel one team into the playoffs and end the postseason hopes of the other. Only a last second home loss by the Detroit Lions the next weekend put St. Louis back onto the dance card.
The Rams of 2001 will surely strive to win the remainder of their games, but even a loss on Monday would probably not dent their status as NFC favorites. The Bucs, however, are sitting at 4-5 and would be in a deep hole if forced to 4-6 by a loss to the Rams. Thus, talk of 'style' of the game and mutual dislike is somewhat less meaningful to the Bucs this time around, as the desperate need for a win supercedes everything else.
"It's kind of ironic that the game was won last year by the offenses going at it and two years ago the game was won by both defenses," admitted linebacker Derrick Brooks. "But the bottom line is let's win, we don't care how we win we just have to find a way to win."
That will mean a fight to the end for the Buccaneers, which, when it's all said and done, will probably result in another memorable addition to this growing rivalry.
"The last two times we played them, it's been real high stakes and gone down to the last possession," said Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy. "I wouldn't be surprised if that happened again."