Though it didn't become official until Sunday afternoon, DT Warren Sapp knew the Bucs had wrapped up a playoff spot by beating Baltimore
Eleven minutes into Tony Dungy's press conference, all the what-ifs turned into what-nows.
When Dungy began his usual day-after-the-game media briefing on Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons were trailing Miami, 21-14, but had the ball and were driving towards the tying score. Midway through Sunday's gathering at One Buc Place, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach was informed that the Dolphins had made a goal-line stand, stopping Atlanta FB Bob Christian twice from the one-yard line.
The Falcons had lost, and with that result, Dungy's Bucs were officially possessors of the sixth NFC playoff spot.
Dungy's reaction was to be surprised, but only that the Falcons had been unable to punch the ball in the end zone. The Bucs' playoff qualification was little more than a formality even before the Atlanta game. Since Saturday night's 22-10 win over the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, the Bucs had begun to contemplate what comes next. Dungy expressed confidence in the Bucs' possibilities.
"It feels great to be in the playoffs," he said. "San Francisco lost today to Dallas. Miami played well and beat Atlanta. The Jets lost to Buffalo, who only had two wins. I think it's going to be that type of year, and hopefully it'll be that type of playoffs."
The Falcon loss gave the Bucs that 'clinched' asterisk on the standings chart, but it was really there own work over the span of six days that secured their fourth playoff spot in the past two years. Tampa Bay exploited home field advantage over two other playoff contenders – New Orleans and Baltimore – in winning a pair of games by a combined score of 70-31.
"We needed some help, but all in all we handled our business against New Orleans and Baltimore to get into the playoffs," said cornerback Ronde Barber, who had four interceptions in those two wins. "The only thing that matters is getting to the playoffs, and it's anyone's ballgame from there."
The Bucs have been able to do that for three years running now, something only the St. Louis Rams and Miami Dolphins can also say. Only the Dolphins, with five, have made the playoffs more times over the last five years than the Bucs, who have been there four times, matching Minnesota.
"Expected," said defensive tackle Warren Sapp. "Four playoff appearances in six seasons under Tony Dungy. I sum it up in one word: Expected."
The only thing left to be determined, by the time Dungy's briefing was wrapping up, was where the Bucs would be traveling in the Wild Card round. If the Philadelphia Eagles could hold off the New York Giants that same afternoon, the Bucs could begin planning a return trip to Philly, where they lost last New Year's Eve in the Wild Card round.
And the Eagles did, in fact, lock up the NFC East later in the afternoon, grabbing the #3 seed in the NFC. The Bucs are the sixth seed, and teams in that position have only been temporarily successful since the playoff field expanded in 1990. In the 11 years since the third Wild Card was added to each conference, the sixth seed has beaten the third seed (the lowest-seeded division winner) six times, including four straight years from 1991 to '94. However, none of those six teams won their next game, which would, by design, be at the home of the number-one seed.
"You're going to go to tough places no matter what," said Dungy of qualifying at the back end of the field. "You know you're going to be on the road three times to get where you want to go. That's difficult, but it's got to be done by someone. I don't think it's ever been done before.
"Philadelphia, we know, is a tough place to play. We went there last year and didn't get the job done. But we've gone to New York, we've gone to St. Louis, we've gone into those places. I think, if we're playing our best ball, we'll feel very good about our chances. Obviously, that's not the ideal way to go, with three road games, but I think it depends on how you're playing and how healthy you are more so than where you have to play."
Buc players endured a slow start to the season – something that has become somewhat of an unfortunate signature for Tampa Bay – but never gave up their belief that they would be in the fight for the Lombardi Trophy in January. After a 4-5 opening, the Bucs have won five of their last six.
"We are just glad to be in the playoffs," said wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. "Hopefully we can be that tough sixth seed that nobody wants to play. I have said all year that if we get in the playoffs, we are going to be one tough team to beat."
That might not have seemed true two weeks ago, when the Bucs lost at Chicago, 27-3, but the team's passionate effort in the last two games has revived hopes that Tampa Bay can play at the level it has expected to, but rarely accomplished, since the season began.
"I think playoff teams look like what we've looked the last two weeks," said Dungy. "They're playing very aggressively. They're playing as a team, playing with energy. They are creating turnovers on defense, not turning the ball over on offense. The only thing we've done is had a few more penalties than I would like to see. We've got to learn how to not rough the punter, other than that we've played pretty solid ball and we've played with high intensity."
The Bucs also secured a playoff spot on the season's penultimate weekend last year, but the finale in Green Bay gave them a shot at also winning the NFC Central. The Bucs battled back to tie the game late in 11-degree weather at Lambeau Field, but Pro Bowl kicker Martin Gramatica's rare field goal miss at the end of regulation sent the game into overtime, and the Packers eventually prevailed.
The Bucs thus went from a first-round bye to a first-week trip to Philadelphia, and the team seemingly never overcame that disappointment of circumstance, falling hard to the Eagles, 21-3. Though the Bucs are actually a lower seed this season, they might be in better mental shape entering the Wild Card round, given that they have been expecting this exact fate for weeks.
"It is different," Dungy conceded. "I think I didn't do a good job last year of kind of getting us over that. We went up to Green Bay fully expecting to win, expecting to get a bye and to be off. Then when we weren't, it took us three or four days to get out of that. Looking back on it maybe should have handled things a little differently, but we've pretty much known from week 10 or 11 on what our fate was going to be. I think we'll be ready to play. If we're healthy I think we'll be a dangerous team."
Much has been made of the confidence it gave the Bucs in their rugged defense-strong running game formula when the Ravens used the same combination to win last year's Super Bowl. With their own playoff road odyssey about to begin, the Bucs can also take heart in the path Baltimore took to the top last year. The Ravens had to win at Tennessee and Oakland, to imposing road venues, to earn a Super Bowl berth, and they managed to do so.
Sixth seed history may be ugly, but the Bucs don't feel weighed down by the past.
"This may be the year that it's not a curse to be on the road," said Dungy with confidence.