In 1996, the year before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers shook of 15 years of losing and began a long run of playoff contention, the team finished with a 6-10 record. The next year, they opened with five straight victories, including road wins in Detroit and Minnesota against a pair of then-NFC Central division mates. Later that year, the Buccaneers beat Chicago, another NFC Central team, in the season finale to clinch a playoff berth, then topped the Lions again in a Wild Card game.
There was a fifth team in that division, though, and the Bucs did not beat them in 1997. That was Brett Favre's Green Bay Packers, who would down Tampa Bay three times that year, including in a playoff matchup at Lambeau Field. It wasn't until late in 1998 that the Bucs finally defeated Green Bay, and four consecutive playoff seasons would follow, culminating in a Super Bowl victory.
The 2015 Buccaneers will finish either 6-10 or 7-9, depending upon the outcome Sunday in Charlotte against a 14-1 Carolina Panthers team. Tampa Bay is now in the NFC South, which was formed in 2002, and Carolina is the new Green Bay. The Bucs have three wins this year against Atlanta and New Orleans, but they haven't beaten the Panthers since 2012.
Jameis Winston expects to encounter a "playoff atmosphere" on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, and as much as he relishes playing in that atmosphere, it exists solely because the Panthers may need a win to ensure home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. On paper, there's not much at stake for the Buccaneers beyond playing the role of spoiler, which isn't necessarily as strong of a motivation as many believe.
However, there is a strong motivating force for Winston and his teammates, and it's the knowledge that they have to clear their Carolina hurdle if they want to achieve their ultimate goals. That won't put them in the playoffs this year, but it would give them reason to believe they can move past their rivals in 2016.
"One thing I always know: To be the best, you have to beat the best," said Winston. "Right now, they are the best. As a Buccaneer, as the quarterback of this team, one day – and I know everyone, we want to be the best, so we know we have to play against those guys. But we fear no one. We're going to go out there and we're going to fight them to the end. That's the great thing about this game, it's our last game of the season, but we know those guys are going to be out there playing for something because they still have things on their goal list that they have to complete. It's going to be a great game."
There are some obvious similarities between Winston and the Panthers' MVP candidate, Cam Newton, given their similar college achievements and shared status as #1 overall picks. But the Buccaneers also want to win games the way Carolina has been doing so, with a strong rushing attack and a stout defense that creates a lot of turnovers. In other words, not only are the Bucs trying to pass the Panthers, they're trying to do so using a very similar formula.
"They have 10 Pro Bowl players so they have good talent, they've developed that talent, that talent has grown within that system and they're reaping the rewards of that right now," said Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter. "We talked to our guys this morning: [If] you want to compete for a division title we've got to go through Carolina. They're the team to beat right now."
There are different ways to win in the NFL, of course, though almost all of them involve having a standout quarterback. When a team is particularly successful, as Carolina has been in winning 18 of their last 19 regular-season games, they are bound to be emulated. Because they are NFC South foes, the Buccaneers need to emulate the Panthers but do it even better. A win on Sunday would be a step in the right direction, as it was for the 1998 Bucs against the Packers.
Photos of the Bucs Cheerleaders from Week 16 at Raymond James Stadium.
"Every team [wants to be like Carolina]," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "It just so happens that they are in our division. They are the division champs three years running. Until somebody takes them down, that's who they are."
Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith took over the same post with the Chicago Bears in 2004 and he brought in current Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera to be his defensive coordinator. It was the first coordinator position for Rivera, who later held the same job in San Diego for three years before the Panthers came calling with their top spot in 2011. Smith praised Rivera and the Panthers for making the most of their recent high draft picks and for staying the course in building their team according to their plan.
"We've seen them get better and better, unfortunately for the rest of us in the NFC South – but it is a model of what we're going to do," said Smith. "We've made progress, but we're not quite there yet, but in time we will be. Again, in order for us to get up on top, we have to be able to compete and beat teams like that."