The 2010 NFC playoff race is a) wide open; b) still anybody's game; c) completely unpredictable; or d) all of the above?
You could make an argument for d) by pointing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers-versus-Arizona Cardinals game this Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Buccaneers, expected to be a forgotten casualty in the Atlanta-New Orleans fight for the NFC South, could finish the weekend in a tie for first in the division. If Tampa Bay beats the Cardinals while the Falcons enjoy their bye week, it will set up a battle of 5-2 teams in Week Nine in Atlanta. The Cardinals, meanwhile, dropped to second in the NFC West with their loss to division rival Seattle last weekend, but could reel the Seahawks right back in, at 4-3 each, if they beat the Bucs and the Seahawks lose at suddenly-hot Oakland.
So which NFC teams really are good, really are primed to take the lead in this crowded race? Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris has been repeating these three words to his team all week: Why not us?
"It's always mentality before it's ever reality," said Morris of his efforts to make his young team believe in itself. For him, a team's record speaks for itself, which is essentially what he was saying earlier in the week with his statement that the 4-2 Bucs were the NFC's best. "That was not bragging, that was the mentality we're trying to set up with these guys. When you send your children out into the world you tell them to go be the best, and that's what I'm telling my young football team. There's no reason why we can't be the best. Why not us?"
Not that it will be easy. The next challenge for the Bucs is a 3-3 Cardinals team that boasts a fine one-two running back punch in Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells, one of the league's most dynamic receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and a defense loaded with well-season veterans like Adrian Wilson, Joey Porter, Darnell Dockett and Kerry Rhodes. The Bucs will also be testing unfamiliar environs, as they invade the Cardinals' new stadium for the first time. However, that hasn't proved to daunting for Morris' young team so far this year; dating back to the end of 2009, the Bucs are on a four-game road winning streak.
"We kind of like the hostile environment," he said. "We like when people don't believe in us. We like when people tell us what we can't do. My young team kind of thrives on it. Here we go. Back to another road game, West Coast, far away, a hostile environment. Great players on that football team – Darnell Dockett, Adrian Wilson, Larry Fitzgerald."
Arizona's offense has struggled to find a new comfort zone in the wake of Kurt Warner's retirement and currently ranks last in the league in yards per game and tied for 29th in points per game. Cue Morris' other favorite quote of the week: "Stats are for losers." Any team that features Hightower (5.7 yards per carry and a real receiving threat), the emerging Wells (34 carries the last two games) and Fitzgerald (team-high 29 catches) has the tools to score in abundance. That this attack is led by undrafted rookie quarterback Max Hall just makes the end result more unpredictable.
The Buccaneers are confident they can take care of business in the desert, however.
"You go into different hostile environments and it really challenges you as a player," said guard Davin Joseph. "We've turned our mindset from an away game to a business trip last year and it's paying off for us right now. We're able to go out and play well. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but we have some tough games coming up and it's going to be important to be consistent on the road."
Will the Bucs extend their road winning streak into their own record books (see below)? We'll find out on Sunday. In the meantime, let's take a closer look at this weekend's matchup:
Tampa Bay: The Buccaneers' Week Eight injury report is lengthy, and includes starting C Jeff Faine, who has been ruled out. However, the team is hopeful it will see the returns of RB Earnest Graham (hamstring) and CB Elbert Mack (heel).
Arizona: The question in the desert is whether or not rookie QB Max Hall, the starter in the Cardinals' last two games, would recover from his concussion in Week Seven to make his third NFL start. Hall was in practice when the week began, and is thus a good bet to be under center against the Bucs.
- Mike Williams, WR, Buccaneers. The dynamic rookie just keeps posting one big game after another, as evidenced by his four Rookie of the Week nominations in just six outings. Williams has at least five catches in each of the Buccaneers' four victories and has scored three of the team's seven passing touchdowns. With 28 receptions for 365 yards and those three scores, he is on pace for a debut season of 71 grabs for 973 yards and eight touchdowns.
- Connor Barth, K, Buccaneers. Barth rebounded from his only misses of the season – two 40 -yard tries that hit the right upright against New Orleans – with the first four-field goal day of his career against St. Louis. The Bucs needed every one of those points, eventually beating the Rams, 18-17, with a last-minute TD pass. Barth has made 10 of 12 tries this year and 16 of his last 18 dating back to the 2009 campaign.
- Daryl Washington, LB, Cardinals. The 2010 second-round draft pick is the first rookie to start on defense for Arizona since Ken Whisenhunt took over in 2007, and he has improved steadily since opening day. Washington's best two games have been his last; against the Saints and Seahawks he posted a total of 17 tackles, three tackles for loss and his first NFL sack.
- Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals. Fitzgerald's numbers, for the season and in recent games, haven't been spectacular by his incredible standards, but he's still driving the Cardinals' offense. Over the past three games, Arizona QBs Max Hall and Derek Anderson have completed 45 passes between them. More than a third of those – 17 for 179 yards – have been caught by Fitzgerald.
- LeGarrette Blount, RB, Buccaneers. Blount is tied for fifth among the NFL's rookie backs with 102 rushing yards, but 72 of those came in the back's last game, vs. St. Louis. Given that performance, and his improving grasp on the team's protection schemes, it seems quite likely that Blount's share of the workload will continue to grow. Much bigger days could lie ahead for the hard-running rookie.
- Sean Jones, S, Buccaneers. Despite less-than-anticipated pressure up front, the Buccaneers' secondary has already produced 10 interceptions, with at least one in every game except the last one. So far, the ball hasn't come Jones' way, however. He has played well in his first season as a Buccaneer and may soon find the ballhawk touch that led to an average of four interceptions per year from 2006-09.
- Steve Breaston, WR, Cardinals. With the departure of Anquan Boldin in the offseason, the talented Breaston was supposed to step up to fill the void opposite Fitzgerald, and he's still likely to do that before the season is over. Breaston opened the year with a seven-catch, 132-yard effort against St. Louis, and scored his first TD of the season in Week Three. Since, however, he has been sidelined by a knee injury; the Cards are eagerly awaiting his return, which could be this week.
- Darnell Dockett, DT, Cardinals. Arizona has sacked opposing quarterbacks 13 times through six games, and the Cards are getting their pressure from an impressive variety of players. No fewer than nine Cardinals have already registered a sack, including Dockett. Dockett has just one QB takedown so far, though, after averaging almost seven over the last three years. They will come – he's first on the team with five QB pressures.
- The Bucs will head to Arizona trying to extend their road-game winning streak to five, and if they are able to do so it will equal their longest such run ever. The Buccaneers first set that record over the 2002-03 seasons, beginning in December of '02 with wins at Detroit and Chicago, and finishing the next year with wins at Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington.
- Tampa Bay's defense gave up touchdown passes of 41 and 42 yards to the Saints in the first 16 minutes of their Week Six meeting…and since has completely clamped down on the long pass. After the second of those long scores, the Bucs held the Saints and he Rams without a completion even as long as 20 yards over the next seven quarters.
- Arizona may not have repeated its Super Bowl trip in 2009 (these days, who does?), but they have definitely remained contenders in the two years since. The Cards made the playoffs again in 2009 (who can forget their 51-45 win over Green Bay in the Wild Card round) and are one game out of first in 2010. One reason: resilience. Over the past two seasons, the Cardinals are 8-0 after a loss. Look out Bucs – Arizona lost last week.
- The Cardinals started the season with Derek Anderson under center, then switched to the rookie Hall, then last week had to return to Anderson when Hall was hurt against the Seahawks. Whoever has been under center, protecting the ball has been key. Cardinal QBs have thrown six interceptions in the team's three losses and just two in the team's three wins.
Safety Hamza Abdullah in his second year with the Cardinals, but his six-year NFL career also includes stops in Denver and Cleveland. It all started, however, in Tampa, as Abdullah originally entered the league as a seventh-round draft pick of the Buccaneers in 2005. He had four tackles and an interception during his first NFL preseason, and the Bucs saw enough promise in the Washington State product to sign him to their practice squad in '05. However, he was plucked off that squad by the Broncos, beginning a nice three-season run in Denver.
ONE TO WATCH
Rookie C/G Ted Larsen has played one regular-season NFL game in his career, and by all accounts it was a very good one. Larsen was pressed into service last weekend against the St. Louis Rams due to Keydrick Vincent's back spasms, and the spotlight certainly didn't blind him. A sixth-round pick of the Patriots this past April, Larsen helped fellow rookie LeGarrette Blount break some long runs and also graded out well in pass protection.