The Bucs have played some very big games in Chicago since Tony Dungy's arrival
It's Chicago week, so the itinerary is pretty familiar to most of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Same flight times, same hotel, same drafty locker room, same dreary weather...the Bucs have become pretty familiar with this Soldier Field trip.
But, just when competitive games between the Bucs and Bears were becoming part of the itinerary, it is all coming to an end.
Sunday's game at Soldier Field will be the last game for the Buccaneers in the NFC Central, their divisional home since 1977. Though the Bucs were the last addition to this otherwise Midwestern group, and by far the most geographically remote, the Central certainly felt like home. Next season, the Bucs will join the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints in the newly-created NFC South.
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Perhaps the Bucs shouldn't shed a tear over losing their annual trips to Chicago – after all, they have won there only four times in 22 tries. Still, the history of the place is hard to let go.
"It's got a lot of tradition and history and because of that it's a place I like," said Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy. "Normally, we've played up there at the end of the year and they've been pretty big games for us, so that makes it special as well."
The big games in Chicago of which Dungy speaks have come since his arrival to the team in 1996. In 1998, a floundering Bucs team expected to contend for the Super Bowl headed to Chicago at 4-7 and beat the Bears, 31-17, sparking a late-season run that nearly landed the team in the playoffs. The next season, a January 2 regular season finale in Soldier Field resulted in a 20-6 Bucs win and the team's first division title in 20 years.
Of course, the team also lost at Chicago last November, it's only defeat in a wonderful stretch of eight games that nearly earned the Bucs another division title. That loss eventually proved crucial.
Now the Bucs are headed to Chicago again – for the last time as a fellow Black-and-Blue division squad – and it is once again a crucial juncture in the season. The Bucs must win to stay alive in the division race, and any run at a Wild Card spot would also be greatly improved with a road division win.
In addition, the Bucs could set a team record for consecutive road victories, having won their last three. There have been three previous streaks that long in franchise annals, one in 1979, one that spanned 1977 and '78 (the first three road wins in team history, by the way), and one that began with that win in Chicago at the end of 1999.
Tampa Bay could also tie its overall record for road victories in a season, matching its 5-3 mark of 1997 and 1979.
"That will definitely help us get where we want to go," said Dungy. "We've played pretty well on the road. Even the three losses that we had we were in the ball game with a chance on the last drive to win them. We've done a good job on the road and we really need to finish off with a win."
What is particularly encouraging about this road game is that it's the last one of the year – in the regular season, at least. The Bucs will finish off the season with three straight home games after their trip to Chicago, only the second time in team history that has happened.
The first occurrence, in 1982, was also under unusual circumstances, if not quite as serious as this year's issue. The 1982 season was interrupted and slightly rescheduled due to a player's strike, and was only nine games long. This year, despite the schedule shuffling made necessary by the game postponed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, all 16 games will be played.
Even in a season where road teams across the board have done quite well, the Bucs are pleased to have three consecutive games at home as playoff spots are decided.
"As soon as the games got postponed the week of the 11th, we knew how it was going to break down, that we were going to have three home games at the end to finish up the year," said Dungy. "So you don't want to panic and you didn't want to get out of striking distance. We just felt if we played good ball we'd have some games that we could win at the end of the year."