The 9-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have already won more games in 2010 than many expected of them, and they appear well set up to win many more in the near future. Like most teams that find themselves clinging to a playoff bubble at season's end, however, there were a few games in 2010 that felt like they got away.
If the Buccaneers were particularly dissatisfied at the end of any games this season, they were the Week 15 overtime loss to Detroit and the two games against the likely NFC South champs, the Atlanta Falcons. All of those games turned late; none were decided by more than six points.
Had Tampa Bay won even one of those three games, they would be heading to New Orleans with a much more robust set of playoff possibilities. There is no point in playing the 'what-if' game; 9-6 is the Buccaneers' reality and it includes a couple of narrow wins as well. Also reality: there are a few more hurdles to clear if the postseason is to be reached. However, Head Coach Raheem Morris can use the situation to impart a valuable lesson to his very young team.
"It's hard to learn, and it's hard to teach," said Morris of letting a few close ones slip away, "but right now it's a great teachable moment."
Specifically, that lesson is that every single play in every single game is potentially the one that will decide your season. Morris emphasized that to his team on Friday because the Buccaneers still have a chance to decide what that play will be. If the Buccaneers can make every play count on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, they might still reach their postseason goal.
"I told them, 'It's a game of inches,'" said Morris. "I'm going to go back and show those guys some of those games and what we're talking about. It's a game of inches, it's coming down to one game…now wait a minute, it comes down to one play. So every play is that important."
Morris will remind his players of the third-and-20 that Matt Ryan and Roddy White converted in Week 13 to keep Atlanta's game-winning drive alive late in the fourth quarter. He'll point to the fourth-and-inches in Atlanta in Week Nine that the Bucs didn't convert on a potential go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter. He might remind them of the toe-dragging sideline catch that Detroit's Calvin Johnson made on third down in crunch time in Week 15, or maybe the kickoff return for a touchdown by Atlanta's Eric Weems.
"All those plays, we'll have a chance to go back and rehash," said Morris. "We'll find out that it comes down to one play, and it's not about pointing fingers at any one particular play. But when you talk about a game of inches and it coming down to one game or one play, everything becomes a little bit more important. That's a great lesson for a young team."
The point isn't to focus on the down moments in what has been a marvelous season, or to get bogged down in the past. The Buccaneers have done an excellent job of getting past small disappointments and keeping themselves on track in 2010. But the wins and the losses have gotten the Buccaneers to the position they're in now, and – as every team experiences from time to time – some of the losses turned on a few crucial moments. The Bucs need to win those crucial moments on Sunday in the Superdome.
Tampa Bay will also need a little good fortune; to make the playoffs they need a win over the Saints coupled with losses by both Green Bay and the New York Giants. The Packers and Giants play later in the day than the Buccaneers, so Tampa Bay still won't quite know its fate immediately after their own game, even if they win.
However, Morris is urging his team to approach the game as if it does control its own fate. It's a mental exercise, just a matter of rearranging the day's schedule in your head. Put the potential Giant and Packer losses down as having already happened, and the Bucs would indeed head into their game with their fate in their hands. There's certainly no harm in looking at it that way.
"If you go out there and you feel like you don't have your fate in your own hands, you're feeling sorry for yourself at the onset of the game," said Morris. "But if we go win and everything else falls into place, then our fate was in our hands. There would be nothing worse than flying home on that plane and you thinking you didn't have your fate in your hands, and you did.
"So in our eyes, we do. We started the playoffs three weeks ago and we had the ability to advance last week. Hopefully we can advance this week. It just so happens our bracket might be cut off, but hey, you can't look at it like that. We just have to go play football."
Stroughter Questionable for Sunday's Game
Neither the Buccaneers nor the Saints will bring the same receiving corps they had in Week 16 into Sunday's regular season finale.
Earlier in the week, Tampa Bay placed rookie wideout Arrelious Benn, one of the team's most rapidly improving players, on injured reserve due to the torn knee ligaments he sustained against Seattle. On Thursday, the Saints did the same with wide receiver Courtney Roby, who actually hadn't played since Week 14 due to a head injury.
Each team also has another question mark among its receivers heading into the weekend, thanks to Marques Colston's injured knee and Sammie Stroughter's strained hamstring. Actually, Colston's situation might not be much of a mystery; he underwent arthroscopic surgery earlier in the week and was listed as questionable by the Saints on Friday's injury report, the first one that includes game-status designations. Stroughter was also listed as questionable by the Buccaneers but was able to participate fully in practice all week.
Stroughter missed Tampa Bay's win over Seattle with that injury, but given the subsequent loss of Benn, the Buccaneers are eager to get the second-year pass-catcher back. Either way, it's likely that Dezmon Briscoe, Preston Parker and Maurice Stovall will see more playing time, as they did in the second half against Seattle.
The Bucs have already ruled fullback Earnest Graham out for Sunday's game due to the neck injury he sustained against the Seahawks. They did not put Graham on I.R., hoping that he might be available if the team successfully chases down a playoff spot this weekend. The other two players on Tampa Bay's injury report, tackle James Lee (ankle) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee), are both considered probable for the game.
In addition to Colston, the Saints also tabbed the following five players as questionable: defensive end Anthony Hargrove (knee), tight end Jeremy Shockey (groin), tight end David Thomas (knee), running back Pierre Thomas (ankle) and linebacker Anthony Waters (ankle). Like Colston, Hargrove, Shockey, Waters and David Thomas missed all of the Saints' practices this week. Thomas was just added to the injury report on Friday, however, after being limited in practice. Fellow running backs Reggie Bush (chest) and Chris Ivory (hamstring) are considered probable.
LB Added to Practice Squad
It's the last week of the regular season, but it's not too late for a young player to make an impression on the coaching staff during practice.
That opportunity was presented to rookie linebacker Simoni Lawrence when he was signed to the Buccaneers' practice squad on Thursday. Lawrence has practiced with the team this week and would continue to do so if the Buccaneers make the playoffs over the weekend. Otherwise, his contract, like those of all practice squad players, would expire at the end of the season. However, teams often re-sign their end-of-the-season practice squad players to "future" contracts during the month of January, meaning they will be on the roster to start the following offseason.
The Buccaneers are Lawrence's fourth NFL team. He originally signed as an undrafted free agent with the St. Louis Rams, but was then released, only to catch on with the Philadelphia Eagles. Lawrence went to training camp with the Eagles but was waived at the end of August. In mid-December, the Chicago Bears signed him to their practice squad, where he spent the next two weeks. He was then let go by the Bears this past Tuesday and picked up by the Buccaneers two days later.
Tampa Bay had an opening on its eight-man practice squad after promoting defensive tackle Doug Worthington to the active roster on Wednesday.
A native of Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, the 6-1, 221-pound Lawrence played two seasons at the University of Minnesota, racking up 151 tackles, six sacks, two interceptions and two touchdowns. In 2009, he served as a defensive co-captain for the Gophers, earning All-Big Ten honorable mention accolades in the process.