As disappointing as the outcome was, last January's NFC Championship Game gave Ronde Barber and the Bucs confidence and a sense of purpose
Will it be 'Buc-ball' or a St. Louis score-fest on Monday night? The Bucs are only concerned about the outcome
Last week's Tampa Bay Buccaneers game at Miami was billed as a Clash of Titans. This Monday's contest is more like a clash of styles.
The Bucs and Dolphins were opponents built alike, two heavyweight sluggers with the same strengths trading blows. Tampa Bay and the St. Louis Rams, on the other hand, are as dissimilar as their records are identical.
The Bucs are 9-5 after a 3-4 start because they have won six of their last seven games, holding their opponents to 17 points or less in each contest. The Rams are 9-5 after a 6-0 start because, after averaging 44 points per game through those first six games, they were limited to just over 25 points the next seven games.
Having dropped to the cusp of the playoff race, the Rams then faced the Minnesota Vikings, another high-powered offensive team with the best record in football. By regaining their offensive explosiveness, the Rams re-emerged as a likely postseason force.
"They look like a different team," said Buccaneers LB Derrick Brooks. "They went back to the basics of what made the Rams the Rams. We kind of went back to what made the Bucs the Bucs after we went 3-4. What made us what we were last year? They kind of did a little soul-searching, then we did a little soul-searching. It will be a good game."
But what kind of game? Since Head Coach Tony Dungy took over the Bucs' reins in 1996, his team is 36-8 in games in which they've scored 17 points or more, including an 8-3 mark in such games this season.
For St. Louis, there's an equally obvious points demarcation, but the bar is set a bit higher. In five of the six games that the Rams have scored less than 34 points, they have come out on the losing end.
St. Louis, in fact, is first in both points scored and points allowed. The average Ram final this year is 34-29. That's not exactly a new level of scoring for the Rams, who averaged over 32 points per game last season en route to the Super Bowl title, never once scoring less than 21.
Never, that is, until the playoffs, when one game leaps off the page as an aberration. St. Louis 11, Tampa Bay 6, NFC Championship Game. The Bucs held the lead until the final five minutes, when the Rams finally scored the only touchdown of the game.
The Bucs don't exactly look back on that game with affection, but it did validate their belief that they could hold down the Rams' seemingly unstoppable attack.
"That game was big for us," said CB Ronde Barber. "It gave us a lot of confidence coming into this year. That team was putting up 31 points a game and we basically shut them down. It's going to be a good challenge for us."
According to Barber, it will be a very similar challenge to what they faced last January.
"I haven't looked at the film yet – I assume the coaches have – but they're doing the same stuff. They're getting the ball into Marshall Faulk's hands out of the backfield, they're running the ball, obviously. I imagine the game plan will be pretty much the same."
St. Louis still put up 309 total yards in that game to the Bucs' 203, still completed 26 passes and held the ball for over 33 of the 60 minutes. But Tampa Bay intercepted QB Kurt Warner three times, something that hadn't happened to Warner all season, setting up short scoring opportunities for the offense and cutting off potential scoring drives.
The Bucs also tackled extremely well, which was how they were able to hold RB Marshall Faulk to 49 combined rushing and receiving yards. During the 1999 regular season, Faulk had averaged 152 combined yards per game.
That same formula helped the Bucs drop the 10-3 Dolphins, 16-13, giving the team confidence for this week's showdown.
"'Buc-ball' at it's finest," said Dungy of the effort. "When we are playing well, that's the way we play. It can be a little different every week. It can be different people stepping to the forefront. What it really is…when something is needed, and it's your turn to make a play, you do it."
Not every successful example of Buc ball has been a 16-13 game. One of the most memorable games in recent team history was the Bucs' 27-24 win over the previously undefeated Vikings on November 1, 1998. Those Vikings featured one of the most explosive offenses in NFL history, but Tampa Bay was able to hang with them because they created turnovers and didn't make any mistakes.
Another undefeated Minnesota squad came into Tampa this season on October 29 and also left with its first loss. In this case, the Bucs dispensed with the drama and blew out the Vikings, 41-13, but Tampa Bay isn't counting on a repeat performance at the Rams' expense.
The Bucs aren't even counting on holding the Rams to 11 points again. That's not the goal.
"I see us winning," said LB Derrick Brooks. "I don't care how it needs to be done. I see us winning this game."