A November loss to Chicago heightened the sense of urgency for Ronde Barber and his Buccaneer teammates
By Vic Carucci, NFL Insider for NFL.com
It would have been so easy to give up, to wallow in self-pity as the season and the Super Bowl dreams began rapidly to turn into vapor.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with a 3-4 record, certainly didn't look like a team that was supposed to still be playing deep into January.
How they felt back in late October, when a 28-14 loss to the Detroit Lions gave them a four-game losing streak, was a different matter.
"We always had faith," Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber insisted. "We always believed in what we were doing and that, sooner or later, it was going to work out for us."
Criticism poured in from all sides. Although most of it was aimed at quarterback Shaun King and an anemic offense, there was a general impression around the country that the Buccaneers were simply underachievers.
What happened to the team that pushed the St. Louis Rams to the brink in the 1999 NFC Championship Game? What happened to the team that was so aggressive in the offseason, acquiring high-profile wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and Pro Bowl offensive linemen Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel? What happened to the team that would dominate in the NFC Central, especially in light of the fact some kid named Daunte Culpepper would be quarterbacking the previously favored Minnesota Vikings?
But Barber was correct. It did work out eventually. A three-game winning streak followed the 0-4 stretch. And after a 13-10 loss at Chicago in late November came four consecutive victories (capped by the thrilling, 38-35 Monday night win over the Rams), a 10-5 record, and a playoff berth.
But it wasn't until after the road loss to the Bears that the Buccaneers began performing truly with a sense of purpose. It wasn't until then that they fully understood what was necessary to avoid the disappointment and embarrassment that would come from a non-playoff season. The list went as follows: Better execution, a greater sense of urgency, and a cooler response to pressure-filled situations.
"When we left Chicago, we said that we have to put ourselves in a position to run the table," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said.
And, thus, the table-running commenced. First was a lopsided victory over the Buffalo Bills, followed by a 20-point win over the Dallas Cowboys, a rain-soaked triumph over the Miami Dolphins, and sweet revenge against the Rams.
"It's four balls down, one to go," Sapp said, as if confidently chalking up his cue stick for another shot.
The next "ball" is Dec. 24, against the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau Field, where the game-day weather forecast calls for a high of 13 degrees, a low of minus-2 and snow flurries. The next challenge is to win a game when the temperature is below 40 degrees, something the Bucs haven't done in 18 tries, and capture a second consecutive division title.
Feel free to assume that this is a hurdle the Buccaneers won't clear. As far as their players are concerned, it is as valid an observation as their inability to win a shoot-out with the Rams.
"I think the past couple of close wins (including the 16-13 victory over Miami), where we've had to really come together and make some plays in pressure situations, will carry us," Barber said. "It'll be something for us to lean on and something for us to grow on going into the playoffs."
Can it carry the Buccaneers all the way to Super Bowl XXXV, for which they would be the host team?
"Hosting a Super Bowl?" Barber said. "Who knows? I think we've got to go through New York and Minnesota before we get to that state. But right now, I think we're rolling. We're playing good football, and I think everybody knows that."