Despite some early-season struggles, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stayed alive in the NFC playoff race by proving they could bounce back quickly from tough losses. Now that the race is about to begin in earnest, it's time to see how the Buccaneers respond after one of their most dominant wins in years.
Head Coach Lovie Smith is not worried about his 5-5 team becoming overconfident after a 45-17 victory in Philadelphia, any more than he was concerned earlier in the year that a loss would have a lasting effect.
"I think you have to look at all past games the same way: They're a part of your past," said Smith. "It's about going forward. We've made progress but there are still things we need to tighten up on. Another good football team we're playing; we'll have to be at our best."
That next good football team is the Indianapolis Colts, who are also 5-5 but have a share of the AFC South division lead. While the Colts try to hold off the surging Houston Texans, the Buccaneers hope to make up the one game in the standings that separates them from the playoff field. Neither team will be lacking in motivation, in other words.
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And neither team is lacking in weapons, despite the fact that Indianapolis will be without starting quarterback Andrew Luck due to abdomen and kidney injuries. Veteran passer Matt Hasselbeck stepped in last week in a win over the Atlanta Falcons, just as he did earlier in the year in victories against Jacksonville and Houston, and played well. In his three starts this year, the 40-year-old Hasselbeck has a 5-2 TD-INT ratio and a 91.9 passer rating.
Photos of Buccaneers vs. Colts matchups through the years.
"When you have a 40-year-old player who has seen it all like Matt has, a lot of experience, there's not a whole lot you can throw at him," said Smith. "It's about us, though. It's improving our techniques, being disciplined in our gaps and when we get opportunities to take the ball away we need to do it."
The Bucs counter with the youngest starting quarterback in the league, and one coming off a record-tying five-touchdown game in Philadelphia. Jameis Winston has developed rapidly in his rookie season and the Eagles contest was his best outing yet, but he's also seeing the benefits of Tampa Bay's second-ranked rushing attack. With Doug Martin leading the way (235 yards), the Bucs rolled up a team-record 283 yards on the ground last Sunday. Smith's team knows that their chances of winning on the road go up dramatically when they run the ball effectively for 60 minutes.
"It's vital, it's a must…there's just no other way for us to be who we want to be offensively," said the coach. "I'm talking about having balance and keeping the defense off [balance], if you can do both. That's the thing about what we've been doing – we've been running the ball extremely well but that's been getting us in favorable positions outside.
"[Martin] has been patient. You can say instincts, whatever it is the great running backs have, but it is about setting your blocks up. He has a lot of confidence that the guys are doing whatever they can to get him an opening and he's been hitting them at the right time."
Winston also enjoyed the return of wide receiver Vincent Jackson last week after Jackson's three-game absence due to a knee injury. Winston threw one of his five touchdown passes to the veteran receiver who has proved so critical to the Bucs' offensive success in his four years in Tampa.
"For a defense looking at us, once you can get another weapon into the mix like we have with Vincent, it does cause problems," said Smith. "When you get him into the mix and then he's able to be productive and make big plays right away, it helps everything."
Jackson is good to go again in Week 12 but the offense will still be without a pair of starters in TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins and guard Ali Marpet. Evan Smith, the team's opening-day starter at center, will make his third consecutive start at right guard in Marpet's place. As has been the case for most of the season, the Bucs will use a trio of players – Luke Stocker, Brandon Myers and Cameron Brate – to get production from the tight end position.
In addition to Seferian-Jenkins and Marpet, the Buccaneers also deactivated QB Ryan Griffin, WR Donteea Dye, S Keith Tandy, DE Kourtnei Brown, DE George Johnson. Tandy and Johnson are also out due to injury.
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The Colts will be down a handful of starters, as well, with Luck joined on the sideline by left tackle Anthony Castonzo and strong safety Mike Adams. In addition to those three, the Colts declared the following four players inactive: WR Phillip Dorsett, LB Sio Moore, G Todd Herremans and LB Bjoern Werner. Dorsett and Moore were also out due to injury.
The Colts indicated that Jonotthan Harrison will start at center in place of Khaled Holmes but did not suggest how Castonzo's absence would be handled. After Castonzo's departure last week in Atlanta, right tackle Joe Reitz moved over to the other side of the line. If that were to be the choice again on Sunday, rookie seventh-rounder Denzelle Good could get his first career start at right tackle.
The Buccaneers take on the Colts on Sunday afternoon with kickoff scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium and will be broadcast by FOX and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.