Eager to play a game that counts, LB Barrett Ruud knows that this weekend's game actually counts a little more than most
NFL players often say that games against opponents in their division "count double" in the standings.
That's the mindset of many Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they prepare for their 2008 season opener on Sunday in New Orleans. Given that the following week brings the Atlanta Falcons to Tampa for the Bucs' home opener, the '08 campaign is starting off with something like a "double-double."
Literally, that isn't the case. Each victory the Bucs rack up counts only once in the win column, of course. But NFC South contests also affect Tampa Bay's "Division Record," a subcategory on the standings that can often prove very important. If a division title comes down to tiebreakers, the first one used is head-to-head games, followed by division records. Thus, games against fellow NFC South teams are that much more important in the big picture.
Even more obviously, every win for the Buccaneers against the Saints, Falcons or Carolina Panthers is a lost opportunity for the other team to move up the standings.
Thus, Tampa Bay's first two weeks of the season feel even more crucial than usual. For the first time since 1998, the Bucs will begin a season with back-to-back games against division opponents. Win both, and the Bucs will own an early division lead and a head start on their NFC South rivals. Lose both, and they'll be staring up out of an early hole.
"It's going to be a tough challenge," defensive tackle Chris Hovan said. "[Sunday's matchup against the Saints] is an intra-division game and the start of the season, so there's a lot of hype going around this game. They're obviously coming back from Indianapolis and they have a lot to play for, for their home crowd, but so do we.
"Like I said, these division games count for two, especially such a fierce rival as New Orleans. We're going to have to start fast and keep up the tempo the whole game."
The Bucs actually started the 1998 season, their first in Raymond James Stadium, with four consecutive NFC North games. That was a rarity, as is even two intra-division games to start the year. This season will mark just the fifth time in club history that the Bucs have opened with two consecutive division matchups. The other years were 1998, 1996, 1985 and 1983.
The Bucs need to take advantage of this "double-up" option much better in 2008 than they did in any of those aforementioned season. The Bucs went 0-2 in 1983, 0-2 in 1985, 0-2 in 1996 and only 1-3 in 1998.
It's never easy to dig out of that kind of hole, a concept that isn't lost on this year's team.
"It's definitely important," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "I think it's the first year that I've been here where we've started with back-to-back division games. It's always good to get off to a good start. You don't want to be in a hole at the start of the season. These two are rivalry games so everybody is going to be excited. It'll be fun."
While NFC South games are usually heated battles regardless of either team's record at that point in the season, the Bucs won't have it easy in Week 1. A trip to New Orleans to face an energized Saints team that is a popular pick to win the division will give the Bucs a stiff test as they seek out a season-opening win.
"The Buccaneers and the Saints have a huge rivalry," wide receiver Maurice Stovall said. "I think they're one of the hardest teams we play against each year. I don't know what it is about them, but it just seems every time we play that there is just something extra that you bring to the game and that you feel from our opposing team.
"It's going to be a great game. They have a very physical defense. They are fast out of the perimeter and they're very experienced in the secondary. I think they are very mentally prepared and make fewer mistakes on defense. It's going to be a challenge for us, but we definitely look forward to it."
Aside from the ramifications the first two games on the schedule will hold in the NFC South race, keep in mind that this is the NFL's opening weekend – these guys would be excited no matter who they were playing.
"You can't ask for anything better," safety Jermaine Phillips said with a smile. "Football season is back, so you have to appreciate that. This is what we went through training camp for, so when we start on Sunday we're prepared and ready to go.
"It's just like being a rookie all over again. Going into that stadium for the first time or playing your first NFL game, you get the jitterbugs and butterflies. Right now, I'm very anxious. I'm like a kid at Christmas time opening presents; I just want to know what I'm getting next. That's the best way that I can describe it right now, the way that I feel. I guess when that feeling doesn't happen, it means that I shouldn't be playing anymore."
Added Hovan: "It's the beginning of the season. It's kickoff around the league. Everyone is excited. Everyone has tabs on winning the Super Bowl. That's the beauty about a new season. We have to go into a harsh environment. I feel bad for what happened to the people of New Orleans, but we have to go there and we have a job to do and that's to win a football game. We're going to come down there with great excitement, great momentum and hopefully we can take one in New Orleans.
So as the Bucs fire up two straight NFC South rivalries and try to grab an early stranglehold on the division title, defensive end Kevin Carter says he and his teammates are more than ready.
"This is our opener and it's a division game," Carter said. "Everyone knows how we feel about each other. Let's go get it on."