Rookie DT Roy Miller has enjoyed seeing the team's hard work pay off during the last two weeks
Three weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 1-12 but, according to anyone you asked in the locker room, still possessed of the confidence of a team with a much better record.
The Buccaneers' aplomb in the face of a lopsided record was probably built on a string of more competitive performances, the rapid improvement of its young defense and the often heady play of rookie quarterback Josh Freeman. Still, the losses continued to add up.
Until the past two weeks, that is. The Bucs head into their season finale Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons riding what some might consider an improbable winning streak. Tampa Bay won at Seattle in Week 15, and while that was the team's first victory on the West Coast in a decade it was less of a surprise than what happened a week later. Last Sunday, Tampa Bay became the first two-win team to beat a 13-win team in NFL history.
Now the team's confidence is not only soaring, it's based on a pair of actual victories, the only currency that really matters in the NFL. Also spiking the self-assurance for a very young team that is still experiencing several things for the first team is the fact that both of those victories were the results of comebacks after slow starts.
"The confidence is at an all-time high [this season], coming back against a team like the New Orleans Saints," said wide receiver Maurice Stovall, who had two catches for 46 yards in the Superdome. "They're ranked number-one, they have the best record, and we just kept fighting, kept pushing. Coach Raheem Morris told us at halftime that our goal was to finish strong and get these last couple wins, and that's exactly what we want to keep going. Practice hard, train hard in the weight room, approach every day like you already have a winning streak and keep pushing and get this win on Sunday."
Except for how it may affect the Bucs' final slotting in the draft next April, the outcome of Sunday's season finale won't seem to make much of a difference. Neither the Bucs nor Falcons will be participating in the playoffs, and Tampa Bay is locked into the fourth slot in the NFC South. A decade from now, it won't matter much if the record books record Tampa Bay as 3-13 or 4-12 in 2009.
Don't tell that, however, to the 53 men who prepared for the Falcons this week as if the game was as important as any of they've played this year. The Buccaneers truly feel as if they took a significant step forward last weekend in New Orleans, and they want to follow that with another step on Sunday against the Falcons.
"This is exactly what we need, to finally come together as a team and to put everything on film," said rookie defensive tackle Roy Miller. "Just to go out there as a team and get that win [in New Orleans] was great. It just shows for the future of this program that we can all buy in, and that what we practice and work so hard for will come to life if we believe."
Miller's fellow 2009 draftee, first-rounder Freeman, obviously expects to be a cornerstone on the team for years to come, and he has enjoyed watching that team start to take form this month.
"Obviously the team is going to change a little bit but we are just showing we can do this," he said. "We are trying to lay all of the groundwork to make a good run next year. It is just showing what we are capable of doing when everybody just clicks together and works together as a team.
"We are playing good football right now. We are running the ball. The defense is just standing up and shutting people down. I think that this is the type of football that we are capable of playing. Our record is what it is but we have a chance to go out and get another win on Sunday and end the season on a high note. I don't think anybody is going to take this game for granted."
Game Notes: Falcons at Bucs, Sunday, January 3, 2010
Kickoff: 1:00 p.m. ET *
Site: Raymond James Stadium (65,890), Tampa, FL *
2009 Records: Tampa Bay 3-12; Atlanta 8-7 *
Network Television: FOX (Dick Stockton, Charles Davis, Laura Okmin) *
National Radio: Compass Media Networks (Lee Hamilton, Curtis Conway) *
Bucs Radio: US 103.5, flagship station (103.5 FM, 620 AM; Gene Deckerhoff, Dave Moore, T.J. Rives) *
Tampa Bay's Last Game: Won at New Orleans, 20-17 (OT) *
Atlanta's Last Game: Won vs. Buffalo, 31-3
All-Time Buccaneers-Falcons Series Results
The Buccaneers lead the all-time series with Atlanta 18-14 and have won six of the last 10 meetings, though the Falcons have won the last two.
Since the NFC South was created in 2002, the Buccaneers own a 9-5 series edge, including season sweeps in 2002, 2005 and 2007, each time on the way to NFC South titles.
The two teams first met in 1977, with Atlanta notching a 17-0 win at Tampa Stadium (11/27/77). The Bucs picked up their first win in the series the next season, a 14-9 decision that evened Tampa Bay's record at 2-2 and marked the first time the franchise had hit the .500 mark since its inception in 1976.
The Bucs' most lopsided win in the series, a 48-10 home victory to open the 1987 season, represents the most points ever scored by a Buccaneer squad in the regular season, a mark that was later tied, once in the regular season and once in the team's Super Bowl XXXVII win over Oakland.
Seeking their first road win of the season, the Buccaneers held a late four-point advantage before the Falcons scored with 23 seconds remaining to escape with the 20-17 victory in the Georgia Dome on November 29, 2009.
QB Chris Redman hit WR Roddy White for a five-yard touchdown on a fourth-down pass, the last of seven consecutive plays run inside the 10-yard line by the Falcons' offense in the closing minute.
With Head Coach Raheem Morris coordinating the defense for the first time on the season, the Buccaneers recorded six sacks, tying the team's season high. DE
Stylez G. White led the team with 2.5 sacks to tie his career high while CB Ronde Barber recorded the 25th sack of his career to become just the second player in
NFL history to record at least 25 sacks and 30 interceptions.
Following a scoreless first quarter, K Jason Elam put Atlanta up 3-0 with a 45-yard
field goal early in the second quarter. On their next possession Redman, playing for injured starter Matt Ryan, found RB Jerious Norwood on a shovel pass for a 22-yard touchdown and a 10-0 Atlanta lead. The Buccaneers needed just two plays on their next possession to score their first points of the game. QB Josh Freeman found WR Antonio Bryant for a 38-yard completion to start the drive and then hooked up with Bryant again on a 42-yard touchdown pass.
Tampa Bay forced a three-and-out on Atlanta's next drive, leading to K Connor Barth's 39-yard field goal with 20 seconds remaining in the first half to tie the game at 10-10. Tampa Bay carried its momentum into the second half as Atlanta lined up to punt on its first drive and S Corey Lynch blocked the attempt, giving the Buccaneers the ball at the Falcons' eight-yard line. Two plays later, Freeman found RB Carnell Williams in the flat for an eight-yard touchdown and a 17-10 lead.
Atlanta trimmed the deficit to 17-13 on its next possession as Elam hit from 37 yards out. Facing a fourth-and-four at the Atlanta 33-yard line with less than three minutes remaining in the game, Barth attempted a 51-yard field goal that sailed just wide right, giving possession to Atlanta at its own 41-yard line. The Falcons needed 11 plays and a defensive holding call on the Buccaneers to move to the Tampa Bay five-yard line with 36 seconds remaining to get in position for the winning score. Redman's first three pass attempts from the five fell incomplete but on fourth down he hit WR Roddy White in the middle of tight coverage for the win.
Two more Buccaneers hit the injured reserve list this week but the remaining injury list is fairly light. Four players entered the weekend as questionable for Tampa Bay: defensive lineman Michael Bennett (toe), defensive tackle Roy Miller (hamstring), running back Derrick Ward (knee/thigh) and guard Jeremy Zuttah (toe).
Of those four, Bennett and Ward did not practice on Friday, though both had previously logged some field time this week. Wide receiver Antonio Bryant was also rested on Friday due to a groin strain but he is considered probable for Sunday's game.
The Falcons' injury list is quite a bit longer, including 12 players, all of whom were considered questionable on Friday. Quarterback Matt Ryan, who suffered a toe injury early in the game the last time the Bucs and Falcons met and missed the rest of that contest, was limited by that ailment again this week but he has played the entirety of Atlanta's last two contests.
Running back Michael Turner continues to struggle with an ankle injury that was aggravated in that same Bucs-Falcons game in November. He did not practice at all this week. Rounding out the trio of offensive stalwarts for the Falcons, tight end Tony Gonzalez is a question mark due to a calf injury, though he did return to practice in a limited fashion on Friday after sitting out on Wednesday and Thursday.
Both of Atlanta's kickers are also on the list, with placekicker Matt Bryant trying to overcome a hamstring injury and punter Michael Koenen fighting a head injury. Defensive starters linebacker Curtis Lofton (shoulder/hamstring), defensive end Jamaal Anderson (chest), defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder) and defensive tackle Thomas Johnson (knee).
Some of the players and coaches in Sunday's game have ties to the other team or to the opposition's region.
Falcons President Rich McKay and his family were associated with the Buccaneers for nearly three decades. McKay was general manager of the Buccaneers from 1995 until December of 2003, when he was named President and General Manager with the Falcons. His father, the late John McKay, served as the first head coach of the Buccaneers from 1976-84. *
Falcons Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey served as Tampa Bay's quality control coach in 1994 and tight ends coach in 1995. *
Falcons Defensive Line Coach Ray Hamilton served in the same capacity with the Buccaneers in 1991. *
Atlanta RB Aaron Stecker played four seasons (2000-03) with the Buccaneers and is the team's all-time leader in kickoff return yards (2,376). *
Buccaneers Offensive Line Coach Pete Mangurian served as an offensive assistant coach for the Falcons in 1997, as the offensive Line coach in 2001-02 before being promoted to offensive coordinator in 2003. *
Buccaneers College Scout Brian Hudspeth was with the Falcons in their player personnel department from 2001-04. He was a scouting intern in 2001, scouting assistant in 2002 and player personnel/football systems analyst from 2003-04. *
Falcons Director of Athletic Performance Jeff Fish was a strength and conditioning intern for the Buccaneers in 1997. *
Buccaneers LS Andrew Economos is from Atlanta and attended Georgia Tech. *
Falcons WR Michael Jenkins lettered in three sports while attending Leto High School in Tampa. *
Falcons LB Stephen Nicholas attended the University of South Florida.