The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have clinched a playoff spot and their only remaining variance is between the fifth and sixth seed in the NFC. Their Week 17 game against a 4-11 Atlanta team will not end up mattering at all in the final seeding if the Los Angeles Rams, whose quarterback has a broken thumb, lose on Sunday to the Arizona Cardinals. Furthermore, Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians says his team isn't particularly concerned about what a win or a loss in Week 17 will mean to its eventual opening-round destination.
But even if Sunday's rematch in Atlanta is potentially lacking in consequence, the Buccaneers are not lacking in motivation. Arians says his team is not going to prioritize resting key players over getting one more victory.
"We're going to play to win," said Arians on Monday. "Eleven and five, that's very rare. To have a chance to get to 11-5, keep that seeding – we want that seeding just for pride. We don't care who we play, it's more for pride. I'd probably have to beat some guys in the head with a stick to try and get them not to play anyway. I talked to them about it before and [they said], 'I'm playing.' We're going to practice and play like everything depends on it. It's not going to be an easy game, either."
That doesn't necessarily mean that all of the Buccaneers' starters will play their usual number of snaps in Week 17. The Bucs pulled Tom Brady at halftime when they led 34-0 in Detroit and later in the game got some rest for a few banged-up defenders. If Tampa Bay can once again rush out to an early lead Arians will have an opportunity, if he wishes, to get some of his players out of harm's way before the playoffs.
"That was kind of [why we] got Tom out at halftime even though he didn't want to come out [along with] Gronk (Rob Gronkowski) and some of those other guys last week, get some young players some reps. When you make these decisions – and I've been a part of both sides – that five and six seed are different. I don't care what anybody says – they're different – and 10-6, 11-5 are different. I've been 10-6 a bunch – been 10-6 and didn't make the playoffs. 11-5 is special. I think our guys are more than ready to go."
The Buccaneers are trying to get to at least 11 wins for the fourth time in team history, a benchmark that has augured well for the franchise in the past. The 1999 team finished 11-5 and made it all the way to the NFC Championship and within one late Ricky Proehl touchdown of its first Super Bowl appearance. The 2002 team set a franchise record with a 12-4 finish and then mowed its way through the playoffs to win its first Super Bowl. Only the 2005 team, which won the NFC South at 11-5 but lost at home to Washington in the first round, failed to use 11 wins as a springboard to a deep run.
These Bucs have high expectations, too.
"I think our guys made a commitment in August to each other, that if we beat the virus, we'd have a chance," said Arians. "If we stayed healthy, we'd have a chance to beat some teams that didn't. Last week was an example. The season is not over. This is a big game coming up – a chance to keep that five seed and go 11-5. I think we'll think about all that when we can look in the rear-view mirror. Right now, we're still looking ahead. It's not really a time to reflect yet."