The 2015 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have proved repeatedly that they can bounce back from a difficult loss with a winning performance the following week. What they haven't yet done, in either of the last two years, is follow up one victory with another. That's the goal on Sunday in Philadelphia, as two 4-5 teams square off in a contest that could be critical to both team's playoffs hopes.
Last Sunday, the Bucs rallied in the last minute to beat Dallas while the Eagles lost by one to Miami in a contest decided in the fourth quarter. Given that these two teams have made a habit of taking their games down to the wire, there's a good chance Sunday's game at Lincoln Financial Field will be another last-second nail-biter.
Fortunately for the Buccaneers, their recent victories of that variety against the Falcons and Cowboys has given them confidence that they can come up with the necessary big plays at the end of a game.
"Whenever you face a situation, it kind of helps you the next time around," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "How you build from it is now just having the confidence to know you can do it, that you can fight through adversity every game. We have had to do that, and what we're finding out is that we can handle it, we can finish."
Smith, who is trying to get his team's record back to even just in time for a playoff push in a crowded NFC field, hasn't shied away from the importance of Sunday's game in Philadelphia.
"It means a lot for us and we put a big emphasis on it, to win two games in a row," he said. "I think it's been since 2013 that we've done that, and it's been since 2012 that we've been over .500 this late in the season. Those are important goals for us to accomplish this week."
In addition to a growing confidence, the Buccaneers also have the advantage of a somewhat healthier roster this week. The team will get a significant boost on both offense and defense as WR Vincent Jackson and DE Jacquies Smith have both been cleared to play. Jackson missed three games with a knee injury and left rookie QB Jameis Winston targeting WR Mike Evans a whopping 41 times in that stretch. Smith sat out the last two contests with an ankle injury but now has a chance to build on his team-high five sacks. That's particularly helpful with the Bucs now also missing ends George Johnson and Josh Shirley due to calf ailments.
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"[Jackson] has had a good week of practice," said Lovie Smith. "He worked hard to get himself back on the football field. He's good to go, playing today, starting, and we're expecting big things from him. Jack Smith has made a lot of progress so he'll start today, ready to go. That's maybe a little bit earlier than we thought. George Johnson, it will be a little bit longer for him. He's inactive today."
Guard Ali Marpet will also be inactive thanks to the ankle injury he sustained two weeks ago. Smith is hopeful that the standout rookie blocker will be ready to go in Week 12, but in the meantime he's confident in the player who will step in at right guard. Evan Smith dealt with his own knee injury during the week but has been cleared to play and will start a second straight game in Marpet's place.
"Evan Smith has made progress; he'll play today," said Lovie Smith. "It's a good thing about the amount of depth that we have right now that when we have a player like Ali down we can still put another good player in there with Evan Smith. Some of our other guys, Kevin Pamphile too, will help a lot."
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In addition to Johnson, Shirley and Marpet, the Buccaneers deactivated QB Ryan Griffin, WR Donteea Dye, S Kimario McFadden and TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Like the first three, Seferian-Jenkins is out due to injury.
Photos of Buccaneers vs. Eagles matchups through the years.
Meanwhile, the Eagles have to go to their second-string quarterback with Sam Bradford out due to a concussion and a shoulder injury suffered last week against the Dolphins. Philadelphia has a very experienced backup in Mark Sanchez, however, and the former first-round pick had a handful of big games as the Eagles' starter last year. The change in Philly's offensive backfield, which will also be without RB Ryan Mathews due to a concussion, didn't appreciably affect the Bucs' approach to this game.
"We don't think it's going to change an awful lot," said Smith. "We think they're going to run their offense, still. Mark Sanchez is a good player, he's been a good player in this league for a long time. I'm sure they don't think there will be a big dropoff. Ryan Mathews is a good player also but that just means Darren Sproles will get more reps. Two good players not playing, but two good players filling in."
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The Eagles' seven inactive players for the game are Bradford, Mathews, CB Denzel Rice, LB Emmanuel Acho, C/G Josh Andrews, G/T Tanner Hawkinson and DE Brandon Bair. Bradford, Mathews and Andrews are out due to injury.
The Buccaneers take on the Eagles on Sunday afternoon with kickoff scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will be played at Lincoln Financial Field and will be broadcast by FOX and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.