The Tampa Bay Buccaneers head into the final weekend of the 2106 regular season with their playoff hopes still alive, if only marginally so. The necessary combination of results is complicated enough – and in the case of a Washington-New York tie, unlikely enough – to make scoreboard watching on Sunday mostly unnecessary.
There is one part of the equation the Buccaneers still care deeply about, however, and that's their own game against the Carolina Panthers. Even if a win on Sunday does not extend the season, as it likely will not, the game remains very important to Tampa Bay players and coaches. There will be no lack of motivation when it's time to kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET on New Year's Day.
"This game is huge for us for a lot of different reasons," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "Going into the next phase of this season, how we finish this season off, it's a division game, we're at home – you can think of a number of different reasons why this game is important. We've just got to go out and win it, man.
"It would be great. Go into the offseason, the postseason, you never know, but going into the next phase of the season on a positive note, with a positive taste in your mouth. You never want to leave a season with a bad taste in your mouth. Finishing the season off with a big win at home, the fans deserve that. They've been incredible."
And, yes, there is that complicated mix of results that would produce a playoff miracle, but most of it will take place after the Buccaneers have already played the Panthers, so it would all be irrelevant by 4:00 p.m. if the team doesn't take care of its own business.
"I've never been [to the playoffs], so there's a little bit of that," said McCoy. "But it doesn't matter if everything is in place. All of the scenarios can happen. If we don't beat Carolina, it doesn't matter. So we've got to do our part."
The Buccaneers would clearly prefer to have a winning record on their ledger in 2016, not to mention their first sweep of the Panthers since 2012 and the positive finish McCoy notes above. The idea of "offseason momentum" is a little more tenuous; as Head Coach Dirk Koetter noted on Monday, the Denver Broncos won the last game of the 2015 season and now they're out of the playoff picture in 2016. The Bucs' opponents on Sunday, the Panthers, went from the Super Bowl to a losing record.
Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken agrees that any momentum gained from a Week 17 loss would have a limited shelf life but still sees great value in getting one more win.
"The difference between 9-7 and 8-8 in my mind is huge," said Monken. "To me, when you play in these games at the end of the year, it comes downs to, 'Alright, which [guys are] being a pro? Are they thinking about the team they're playing? Are our players thinking about the Carolina Panthers and what they do, just like we were every other week? Are we thinking about, 'Next week if we don't make the playoffs, where am I going, my offseason? Because if they're doing that, they're wrong.
"Every practice rep matters, everything we'll do today in practice will matter for this week and our future."
As it turned out, it likely would have taken 10 wins for the Buccaneers to break their postseason drought. A winning record might be a consolation to some, but to quarterback Jameis Winston the final game is important not as a chance to get that ninth victory but simply as a chance to get one.
"It matters because we've got one more game that we know we've got to finish," he said. "That's the game that they've given us in the regular season, the game that we have to play and we have to finish that game. How we finish the game is going to mean more to me than the 9-7 and 8-8 scenario, alone. We've got to go 1-0 this week."
- The Buccaneers' Week 17 injury list is one of the team's shorter ones this season, though that obviously disregards the handful of players who have recently been placed on injured reserve.
Tampa Bay's first official injury report included just four players, and only two who did not practice on Wednesday. Defensive end William Gholston continues to recover from the elbow injury that kept him out of last Saturday's game in New Orleans, while running back Doug Martin had an excused absence from practice.
Martin released a statement on Wednesday explaining that he would be starting a four-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy and that he would be entering a treatment facility to receive help.
The other half of the injury report consists of offensive linemen Demar Dotson and Gosder Cherilus, who combined to start the first 14 games at right tackle. Dotson has missed three straight games with a concussion but was a full participant in practice on Wednesday, which would appear to be a good sign. Logging a practice is one of the steps a player must make in order to be cleared by the NFL's concussion protocol.
Carolina's injury report on Wednesday was twice as long and included five players who did not practice: quarterback Derek Anderson (illness), wide receiver Devin Funchess (knee), defensive end Charles Johnson (foot), tight end Greg Olsen (elbow) and running back Jonathan Stewart (foot). Olsen is the Panthers' leading receiver with 77 catches for 1,051 yards and three touchdowns, Stewart has paced the team with 759 rushing yards and Johnson is tied for third with 4.0 sacks.
- With all the upheaval in the Buccaneers' backfield this season, the team is fortunate it was able to snare Jacquizz Rodgers in early September after he was let go by the Chicago Bears. Rodgers filled in marvelously at midseason when both Martin and Charles Sims were out, and he's taking the lead role again in the final two weeks of the season with Martin's suspension and Sims landing on injured reserve.
Rodgers rushed for 63 yards and a touchdown and averaged 4.2 yards per tote in Martin's place on Saturday. While Tampa Bay's rushing attack has never regained the form that made it one of the league's best in 2015, it would have been in worse shape without Rodgers.
"He's just what you call a competitor that is going to take advantage of his opportunities," said Winston. "He isn't going to say much, is going to sit in the shadows, but when it's his turn, he's going to be the brightest star out there on the field and I thank him for his selflessness and just being ready at any given time. Coach Koetter gave him another opportunity to be here with him and he took advantage of it, man. So I just thank him; we owe a lot to Jacquizz Rodgers."
Incredibly, Rodgers has set a career single-season high in 2016 with 485 rushing yards. In his first five NFL seasons – four in Atlanta and one with the Bears – he primarily served as a third-round back and had a career-best 362 yards on 94 carriers in 2012. In two of his first three years with the Falcons he had more receiving yards than rushing yards. However, the Buccaneers have discovered – originally out of necessity – that Rodgers can carry the load as the primary back if need.
"He's an experienced guy that I think gets north and south, that's one of the things he does," said Monken. "Is he a guy that's going to end up taking a play 50, 60 yards? Probably not, he doesn't garner that long speed, but in terms of moving the chains, I think he has really good vision and I think he plays with a really good pad level and when he does get contact, he's able to get another yard or two. I think that's what he does. And again, from a protection standpoint, his maturity helps."