Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris says there is only one "signature" game in every NFL season, and this year it will be played in Dallas in February.
Fair enough, and true. Morris' 7-3 Buccaneers will play the 7-3 Baltimore Ravens in Maryland on Sunday, and neither team will win or lose a playoff berth on that Sunday. Neither will either team "prove" itself as a true contender by what it does at M&T Bank Stadium.
That said, it is also fair to call this a big game (though Morris and his team would certainly counter that it is the biggest game on their schedule simply by virtue of being the next game). It's a spectacle, as the NFL made clear by moving it to the 4:15 time slot recently. It will be three hours of hard-nosed football that will in some way affect both conference playoff races.
And it just happens to be against an opponent the young Buccaneers would very much like to emulate.
"I study their tape a lot, and what they do, some of the stuff they do scheme-wise," said Morris. "I've got a lot of respect for their coordinators and obviously a lot of respect for their head coach. I have a lot of respect for their demeanor on defense, and their demeanor about playing football in general."
This is the first time since 2005 that the Buccaneers have been 7-3 or better after 10 games and set to play another team with a record at least that good in Week 12. The Bucs took the loss in that one, 13-10 to Chicago, but then won four of their next five and the NFC South title. Before that, it was the memorable 2002 game against Green Bay in which both teams brought 8-2 marks into the game and the Bucs left with the best record in the NFL.
In other words, matchups like this one don't come along too often (and yet it's a measure of how exciting this season has become that the very next week could pit the Bucs and Falcons each with eight or more wins, if things go well in Baltimore). The Bucs don't need any extra motivation for the game, however; preparing for the Ravens and their often dominant defense is enough to make any player focus.
"They present a lot of problems," said Morris. "Any time you can create some anxiety for the quarterback, you can create some problems. But our O-Line, our quarterback, they've done a great job in protection all year. You've rarely seen free hitters just go out there and hit [Josh] Freeman. These guys create a lot of problems. They've got walk-around blitzes, they've got five blitzes, they've got some four-man blitzes, they've got some stack blitzes. They do a bunch of different things and they've got the ultimate ballhawk back there in Ed Reed. You've got to be careful in everything you do. They're an opportunistic defense like us, they've done that in the past. They score on defense, they get interceptions and cause turnovers, and they get stops on third down."
Five teams in the AFC North and NFC South are currently 7-3 or better, half of all the NFL squads with that distinction. Those two divisions have done battle all year, and the five winning teams are 2-2 against each other, with two to go. The Saints will still play Baltimore in December, but first up it's the Buccaneers at the Ravens, doing everything they can to keep pace in their respective divisions.
"That's a tough division over there that they play in, a well-respected division. We're starting to formulate that over here in the NFC South. It's great competition for us, a great matchup for us.
"Every week presents a different challenge, and no matter what you did last week it's not going to be the same this week. We're just going to prepare to go up there and play our very best game."
Will that be enough to give the Bucs their fifth road win in six tries this season? We'll find out on Sunday. In the meantime, let's take a closer look at this weekend's matchup:
Tampa Bay: The Bucs may go into this game as healthy as they have been in months. Defensive end Kyle Moore has already been ruled out and will miss his third consecutive game due to a shoulder injury, but he is likely the only player on the Tampa Bay roster out due to injury on Sunday.
Baltimore: The Ravens' injury report was also relatively light this week, though three starters missed practice on Wednesday to start the week. Starting right guard Chris Chester missed the entire week of practice due to an illness and defensive end Cory Redding has an elbow ailment.
- Gerald McCoy, DT, Buccaneers. We're getting pretty good at this "Who's Due" thing (see below). In recent weeks, such "Due" selections as Arrelious Benn, Kellen Winslow and Cadillac Williams have come right out the next week and turned in big games. The same was true this past Sunday of McCoy, whose recent exploits are covered in more detail in this week's Q&A. In short, McCoy over the last three games has racked up 15 tackles, one sack, six QB pressures, three tackles for loss and three pass break-ups.
- Cadillac Williams, RB, Buccaneers. What the heck – let's pull over both of our Who's Due selections from last week into the "Hot" category (the trick is to pick a player who is actually starting to pick up steam already). Williams followed his game-clinching 45-yard TD run against Carolina with another very productive day in San Francisco. He ran seven times for 51 yards and another score and caught one pass for seven yards. The Bucs are 3-0 this year when Caddy finds the end zone.
- Ed Reed, S, Ravens. When did perennial Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed get hot this season? When he finally got to pull on his jersey. Reed missed the Ravens' first six games due to a hip injury, and the Ravens most certainly missed him. Reed is obviously fully healthy now, as he has been back for four games and already has four interceptions, not to mention 12 tackles, four passes defensed and a forced fumble.
- Todd Heap, TE, Ravens. Once one of the league's most prolific tight ends, Heap hasn't had a 70-catch season since 2006. However, Heap is still a very important part of Baltimore's offense, and lately QB Joe Flacco has been looking his way quite a bit in the red zone. Over the Ravens' last five games, Heap has 17 catches for 257 yards and, most importantly, four touchdowns. His 15.1 yards per catch indicate that Heap can actually score from long distance, too.
- Sammie Stroughter, WR, Buccaneers. Even though their offense was already clicking, the Bucs were very pleased to welcome Stroughter back into the mix in Week 11. Stroughter had missed the previous two games with a foot injury and that robbed the Buccaneers of one of their favorite third-down targets. Sure enough, Stroughter's second catch in his return was a seven-yarder on third-and-four, preserving yet another drive. He finished with just those two catches but is likely due for some much bigger days.
- Roy Miller, DT, Buccaneers. One of the few defensive linemen who didn't get in on the six-sack spree in San Francisco, Miller was nonetheless praised for his play against the 49ers by Head Coach Raheem Morris. Morris surely appreciated Miller's strong play at the point of attack, as many of Frank Gore's carries were stopped right at the line (Gore finished with 13 yards on nine totes). Miller has been doing yeoman's work up front; he'll likely get the sack glory soon, too.
- Anquan Boldin, WR, Ravens. Baltimore thought it was getting a new number-one receiver in the offseason when it traded for Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald's former running mate in Arizona. And indeed they have, as Boldin leads the Ravens' 14th-ranked passing attack with 48 catches for 625 yards and six scores. It's fair to say that Boldin was hotter at the beginning of the season, however. Over the last three games he has just 10 catches for 107 yards and one score.
- Chris Carr, CB, Ravens. With 10 starts this year, Carr has already matched his career total from his first five seasons in the league (three with Oakland and one each with Tennessee and Baltimore). Primarily a kick returner before joining the Ravens, Carr got a taste of the defensive action last year with four starts and quickly doubled his career interception total from two to four. This year, however, Carr has picked off just one pass and is probably due for a few big plays soon.
- Last week, we noted that the Bucs had recently been outstanding in converting long third downs. That trend actually did not continue in San Francisco, but another one involving third-down conversions did. The Bucs were good on five of eight tries after halftime against the 49ers, marking the fifth straight game they've turned it up after the intermission. Over those five games, the Bucs converted 20 of 38 second-half third-down attempts, a healthy success rate of 52.6%.
- Through the first five games of the season, the Buccaneers were the least-penalized team in the NFL. Then a 12-flag flurry against St. Louis sent that trend in the wrong direction fast. Over that game and the next three, the Bucs averaged nine penalties and 70.5 penalty yards per game. Perhaps the trend is finally swinging back; the Bucs tied a season low with just three penalties in their win over the 49ers on Sunday.
- In the ongoing battle between the conferences in the regular season, Baltimore has consistently been one of the AFC's best soldiers. Since 2003, the Ravens have been winning two out of every three interconference games (20-10) for a winning percentage of .667 that ranks fifth best in the AFC. This season, Baltimore has lost to Atlanta but beaten Carolina as the AFC North and NFC South match up.
- When Dawan Landry took a pitch from Ed Reed after an interception against the Panthers on Sunday and took it into the end zone, it marked the first time this season that Baltimore's renowned defense has scored a touchdown. It's surprising that it took so long, given that Baltimore had been averaging 3.5 defensive scores per season since its 2000 Super Bowl season. The Bucs hope the Ravens don't turn that one score into a trend, because Baltimore is 30-5 since 2000 in games in which it scores on defense.
Former quarterbackJim Zorn played* *140 games over 11 seasons in the NFL, 126 of them as a Seattle Seahawk and exactly one as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. That lone appearance as a Buc, in 1987, proved to be the last game of Zorn's playing career. In 1987, he was one of several dozen players to become Buccaneers during the players' three-week strike, and he started under center for the team's 20-10 win over Minnesota on October 18. Zorn completed 20 of 36 passes for 199 yards and two interceptions in the contest, the last in that three-game run before the regular players returned. Zorn then began his coaching career at Boise State in 1989.
ONE TO WATCH
It wasn't the highest-profile roster move the Buccaneers have made this season, but the team has been very pleased with the results of its Nov. 3 signing of DT Al Woods. When Brian Price's move to IR left Tampa Bay a little thin on the interior D-Line, the team addressed that issue by plucking Woods off the Pittsburgh practice squad. The rookie out of LSU played just six days later at Atlanta, and has since become a regular part of the team's DT rotation, just as Price had been. So far, Woods has contributed eight tackles and a half of sack and made the Bucs feel much more comfortable about their defensive line depth.