The Saints gave the Bucs a fight to the finish in Baton Rouge five weeks ago
At some point this week, you're going to hear that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the NFC South in the bag. The Bucs control their own destiny, meaning they need only to beat the New Orleans Saints on Sunday to claim the division title over Carolina.
And, this argument will go, the Saints are 3-12 and merely playing out the string. They'll be lacking any motivation. They'll have their golf clubs with them on the flight to Tampa. And so on.
Don't buy into it.
NFL coaches and players are highly-motivated individuals at any point in a season. Too much work goes into a single season or a single game week to just give one away at the end. The Saints won't be playing for any part of the playoff pie on Sunday, but that doesn't mean they're going to concede the game just because the Buccaneers need it more. Ask the Cincinnati Bengals, who were fighting for a first-round playoff bye last Sunday, if the 4-10 Buffalo Bills laid down.
That's the message that Tampa Bay Head Coach Jon Gruden will deliver to his team this week, as well. Given what's at stake and what the Saints have done in Tampa since the NFC South was formed in 2002, they won't be a difficult bunch to convince.
"We have got to win this game," said Gruden, showing no interest in the playoff scenarios that would kick in with a Bucs loss. "It's a big game for us. The Saints have given us problems in the past, at least since I have been here, they are 3-0 in our stadium. [This is a] big football game for us, and we're looking forward to it."
Indeed, New Orleans has won each of its last three games at Raymond James Stadium. They won in Tampa at the beginning of the Bucs' Super Bowl season in 2002, and again last year near the end of a season with their record at 5-8. They've beaten the Panthers, nearly upended the Falcons and taken the Bucs down to the wire in the first meeting, in Baton Rouge, five weeks ago. They will surely be motivated to take on their divisional rivals; little love is lost between the four teams of the South.
That's why Gruden might call this one a "must-win," but he would never call it a "should-win." There are no easy games in the modern NFL, as the San Francisco 49ers and New York Jets made clear at the Bucs' expense earlier this year. Both the 49ers and Jets are currently tied with New Orleans at 3-12 in the overall standings.
"I don't play that game," said Gruden, when it was suggested this is a game his team "should" win. "Every week you see Buffalo go to Cincinnati, they win the game. Nobody expected Dallas, I don't think, to go to Carolina and win. You have to play great to win in this league these days. It doesn't matter who says you should do what."
There is, of course, a difference in caution and lack of confidence. The Bucs are certainly confident in their ability to win the game. Each work week in the NFL begins with the idea that it will end in a victory. A game plan is put into place that is expected to work and practices are conducted to get the details straight. Veteran players tell their younger teammates the same message every week: "It's about us, not them."
Every once in awhile, the week ends with a loss that was clearly the result of the other team being clearly better on that day. The Patriots' 28-0 blanking of the Bucs two weeks ago is a good example. But for every Patriots game there are 10 more in which the losing team feels as if it was its own mistakes, maybe just one or two plays, that let the game get away. That was how the Bucs felt after falling to the Jets and 49ers, even if those teams surely felt differently. That is undoubtedly how the Falcons felt leaving Tampa last Saturday, even though the Bucs were focusing on the plays they made to win the game.
So, if Sunday's game is about what the Bucs have to do and not what the Saints are likely to do, then there's no reason to prepare for this one any differently.
"You can't sway away from the bull's eye very far," said Gruden. "This is what we worked for. This is a great opportunity for our team and a great challenge indeed, with the Saints coming in here."
Echoed no-nonsense veteran center John Wade: "I expect this to be a tough game. We're going to prepare, as normal, for everything, and execute our game plan."
Besides, the Bucs' stretch-drive emotions have been on high for some time, and they were stretched thin in Saturday's unforgettable overtime clash with the Falcons. Tampa Bay isn't exactly coasting into the playoffs like the Colts or Seahawks. The big win in Carolina three weeks ago, the one that has put the team in position to win the division, ratcheted up the intensity of the season another notch. The Bucs probably couldn't shut it off for a week if they wanted to.
"I started feeling just the atmosphere of a playoff game," said rookie running back Cadillac Williams of the Atlanta game, clearly savoring it. "That was the type of game it was. Yes, I am feeling it. And I am just looking forward to getting back out there Sunday."