The Tampa Bay Buccaneers insist that they are just as motivated to win as ever over the final two weeks of the regular season, despite the departure of their playoff hopes, and their head coach intends to continue playing his key performers to the end.
That means a single-minded focus this week on the St. Louis Rams…who just happen to be entering the game with the exact same frame of mind.
The Buccaneers appeared to be in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt at 6-4, coming off a four-game winning streak, but their hopes have slipped away during a matching four-game skid. Conversely, the Rams had seen a 3-2 start dissolve into a 3-6-1 mark before they got hot with wins over Arizona, San Francisco and Buffalo. Just when they started to think about slipping into the back door of the playoff dance, the Vikings came to St. Louis and slammed it shut with a 36-22 defeat.
Thus, the Bucs are 6-8 and the Rams are 6-7-1 and neither one has more than a miniscule mathematical chance yet to make it in. The concern at such a point always turns to a team's motivation for remaining games that won't lead to anything bigger, but the Rams apparently feel much the same as the Buccaneers.
"Last week losing to Minnesota really hurt our playoff chances, but before that we had won three straight and had kind of found a rhythm," said third-year QB Sam Bradford. "Obviously our playoff chances are slim right now, if any, but we can still have a winning season if we win these next two. And if we beat Seattle in two weeks we can go undefeated in our division. So there's still a lot left for us to play for. We're still coming in with the same attitude we've had all year – this is the most important game of our season right now, coming down to Tampa and playing a good team. We're up for the challenge this week."
Driving home the similarity of the two teams' situation is how heavily both are already leaning on very young players in key roles. Bradford just turned 25; his Buccaneer counterpart, Josh Freeman, is still 24. Tampa Bay is already starting rookies at running back (Doug Martin), weak side linebacker (Lavonte David) and strong safety (Mark Barron), while rookies are starting for the Rams at defensive tackle (Michael Brockers) and right cornerback (Janoris Jenkins). St. Louis also has a rookie-heavy group of specialists, including the kicker (Greg Zuerlein), punter (Johnny Hekker) and kickoff returner (Chris Givens), and Givens is also the team's third-leading pass-catcher.
"There are [teams] that obviously will play players now that they've been eliminated just to see what they have," said Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher. "That's not the case with us. We've played all of our young players so we know what we have. To me, it's an opportunity for younger players to continue to get better. This is a year-around opportunity and I think it's important to finish strong."
Bradford, the 2010 first-overall pick who is in his third year as a starter but his first under Fisher and Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, is finishing the season well, which is a good sign for the 2013 Rams. In six games since the Rams' late-season bye, Bradford has thrown 10 touchdown passes against just four interceptions, averaged 243 passing yards per game and posted a decent-if-not-overwhelming passer rating of 84.3. Bradford's numbers in 2012 are up across the board from his first two seasons, as he is setting career-bests in completion percentage, yards per game and passer rating. He has obviously enjoyed the opportunity to work with Fisher, the proven veteran coach.
"Coach Fisher's impact has been huge," said the former Oklahoma star. "Ever since he's been here, things have changed. I think one of the biggest things is just the overall change in attitude of this team and of this locker room. It's hard to explain. He's such a confident guy and a confident coach. Just watching him, the way he carries himself in meetings, during practice, during the game. He never loses his cool; he's always calm, he's always collected. It seems like he always knows what his next move is and he's always very confident in that next move. I think that really carries over to our team and our locker room."
Fisher's leadership is likely to be critically important if his team is going to follow up on that pledge to take the final two games as seriously as the last 14, just like Greg Schiano is trying to create that atmosphere at One Buccaneer Place. If the Rams are able to keep their motivation at a high level, that will be accomplished even before they get on a plane to Tampa on Saturday.
"You're not thinking about anything but doing the best you can when the ball is kicked off," said Fisher. "It's not necessarily Sunday that's the issue. The key is the approach that's taken during the week. If the correct approach is taken during the week then typically you would expect to have success on Sunday. The challenge to me, when you're in a situation to me, is how you handle the week."