The Race to 10 is over.
It's over, that is, if you take it literally. Before the 2010 campaign began, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris gave his team an unofficial internal slogan, saying the season would be a "Race to 10." The idea was, getting to 10 wins usually put a team into the playoffs or at least in the thick of the race. If it was truly a "race," however, Atlanta and Pittsburgh got their first last weekend. Furthermore, it's beginning to look like a 10-win team could be left out in the NFC this season.
The spirit of the Buccaneers' own Race to 10, however, is still very much alive. A team that few outside observers picked to contend in 2010 – a team that happens to be the youngest in the NFL by a good margin – is about to play some very meaningful games in the month of December. That was the goal all along.
"For us right now, it's about getting into position to be dangerous," said Morris. "It's about getting in position to play for that thing that nobody thought we could. We're going to get as many wins as we need to get in position for the playoffs."
The Bucs tough loss to Atlanta on Sunday, in which they led by 10 points with 10 minutes to play, pushed them to the very fringe of the NFC South race. At 7-5 they are three games behind the Falcons, with New Orleans in between at 9-3. In addition to winning all four of their remaining games, the Bucs would need some serious help from Falcon opponents to claim another division title. However, they are very much alive in the Wild Card race and know they can't afford a stumble in Washington.
"This is a new challenge for us, and we look forward to it," said Morris. "This is the first time we're coming off back-to-back losses all season, and we need to rebound. The mood around here has been good all week. Our guys are hungry and ready to play."
They'll face a 5-7 Washington Redskins team that has also lost two in a row and has slipped almost out of playoff contention with four losses in the last five weeks. But it is also a veteran-laden Redskins club that has dozens of players who know how to win in the NFL – Donovan McNabb, Chris Cooley, Santana Moss, London Fletcher, DeAngelo Hall, Vonnie Holliday and Jammal Brown, to name a few.
The Bucs, in contrast, are young and still developing an identity. In recent weeks, the backbone of that identity has been a strong and consistent rushing attack. Over the past seven weeks, Tampa Bay has had the sixth-best rush offense in the NFL and has fed off the power running of rookie LeGarrette Blount. On Sunday, they'll face a Redskins run defense that ranks last in the NFL and just gave up 197 yards on the ground to the New York Giants.
Certainly, the Bucs will be looking to establish the run at FedExField, especially if it's as cold and damp as the forecast predicts, but they don't expect the Redskins to be pushovers, no matter what the numbers say. The Bucs' own recent progress in run defense is proof that a team can play better than what the stat tables predict.
"If you look at what we've done and where we're ranked, we're terrible against the run," said Morris. "The point is, you get better throughout the season, you grow and grow. There's no difference with what's going on in Washington. You can't go on what happened the week before. They played a pretty good rushing team in the New York Giants and they gave up some yards. You can go in and try to duplicate some of those things the Giants were able to do and try to have some of that same success. But you don't get caught up worrying about what other people have done to them. We've got to go out there and do what's best for us."
Will the Bucs get their ground game going and keep their own Race to 10 in high gear? We'll find out on Sunday. In the meantime, let's take a closer look at this weekend's matchup:
Tampa Bay: The Bucs have lost five starters to injured reserve over the last two weeks, but the health of the current 53 players on the active roster isn't much of an issue. LB Quincy Black was considered questionable for the game after aggravating his sprained ankle.
Washington: The Redskins may get RB Ryan Torain back at full strength this week and believe that rookie left tackle Trent Williams will be able to play against the Buccaneers. However, S LaRon Landry has missed the Redskins' last three games and could be out longer with an Achilles injury.
- Ronde Barber, CB, Buccaneers. Barber lost his starting mate, Aqib Talib, last week to a season-ending injury so the Buccaneers' defense will need his playmaking ability more than ever down the stretch. Fortunately, Barber has been very active in recent weeks, making plays in the secondary and around the line of scrimmage. Over his last four games, Barber has 14 tackles, one sack, one interception and six passes defensed, including two in each of the last two games.
- John Gilmore, TE, Buccaneers. Now, we're not saying that Gilmore has become Josh Freeman's go-to target, or anything, and his best contribution to the Bucs' offense remains his outstanding blocking. Still, the opposition's focus on fellow TE Kellen Winslow, as well as the creative play-calling of Greg Olson, has made Gilmore a more visible player in recent weeks. After catching just three passes for 27 yards through the Bucs' first eight games, he has six receptions for 88 yards and his first touchdown of the season in the last four.
- Anthony Armstrong, WR, Redskins. The starting wideout job opposite Santana Moss belonged to former Buccaneer Joey Galloway when the season began but Armstrong, a former practice squad player in 2009, took over the job in Week Five and has since provided a big-play presence. Armstrong has snared 17 receptions over the past five weeks and turned those into 366 yards. That's an excellent 21.5 yards per catch over that span, which included a 97-yard game last week against the Giants.
- Phillip Buchanon, CB, Redskins. Another former Buccaneer, Buchanon has spent most of the season as Washington's nickel back, though he has started two of the last three contests in place of an injured Carlos Rogers. Whatever his role, Buchanon has been making a series of impact plays in recent weeks. Over the last five games he has 17 tackles, seven passes defensed, one interception, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
- Quincy Black, LB, Buccaneers. With early-season sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles, it didn't take long for Black to become the first Buc defender this season to make a mark in each of the eight defensive stat categories the team tracks. However, an ankle injury in Week Nine cost him two games and slowed down the roll of big plays. Since his return, Black has 13 tackles over two games but hasn't invaded the opposing backfield or disrupted a pass. Given his early-season surge, he's a good bet to get hot again down the stretch.
- Micheal Spurlock, WR, Buccaneers. With 14 catches for 205 yards, two touchdowns and an average of 14.6 yards per reception through the first eight games of the season, the former college quarterback quickly proved that he is a viable NFL receiver and not just a return man. Circumstances haven't brought the football his way very often over the last month, however. Over his last four games, Spurlock has just one reception for six yards. He's also been held in check in the return game over that span, though he lost a long one to a penalty against Atlanta.
- Santana Moss, WR, Redskins. Moss has teamed with TE Chris Cooley to give the Redskins their two leading pass-catchers every year since 2005, and this season is no different. Moss's 64 receptions pace the team, with Cooley just behind at 60. In four of the Redskins' last five games, however, Moss has been held to 56 receiving yards or fewer, with just 9.3 yards per catch and no TDs in those four games. The other game in that span, however, shows his big play potential: six catches for 97 yards and a score vs. Tennessee.
- Andre Carter, LB, Redskins. Pass-rushing LB Brian Orakpo has a team-high 8.5 sacks, but Washington hasn't gotten much sack production from their other big men, especially of late. Carter, a veteran defensive end who moved to linebacker in the Redskins' new 3-4 scheme under Head Coach Mike Shanahan, had 11.0 sacks in 2009 but has just two so far this year. Carter had a half-sack each against Philadelphia and Minnesota but otherwise hasn't dropped an opposing quarterback since Week Four.
- Without much fanfare, the Buccaneers have spent the second half of this season building the type of powerful and reliable running game the team's new brass envisioned when it took over in January of 2009. With LeGarrette Blount leading the way, the Buccaneers have been nothing short of outstanding on the ground over the last seven weeks. In that span, the team has racked up 974 yards on 202 carries, or 139.1 yards per game and 4.8 yards per rush. During those seven weeks, the Bucs rank sixth in the NFL in both rushing yards per game and yards per carry.
- Tampa Bay's second-half scoring offense has been pretty steady throughout the season, but the team's results before halftime have gone up and down. The Bucs had averaged just over seven points per first half through their first three games before exploding for a total of 59 first-half points in a three-game stretch against Arizona, Atlanta and Carolina. Unfortunately, that trend hasn't kept over the last two weeks, with the average going back to just eight points per game.
- If Washington's defense has struggled overall this year (31st in the yardage rankings) it has remained strong on third-down conversions. Or, rather, it has come on strong after allowing a 40.3% success rate through the first month of games. Over the last eight games, opponents have converted just 30.3% of their third downs against the Redskins' defense, which has risen all the way to fifth in the NFL in that category.
- Washington is 5-1 this season when it has held its opponents to 17 points or less, and 0-6 when their foes have scored 18 or more. It's easy to see, then, why the Redskins won four of their first seven games but since then have prevailed in just one of the last four outings. In that opening stretch, Washington allowed exactly 19 points per game; over the last five games, it has allowed exactly 32 points per game.
Brandon Banks, the eighth-leading kickoff returner and 11th-leading punt returner in the NFL, is familiar to the Buccaneers, if only just a little. Banks is in his rookie NFL season and he went undrafted out of Kansas State, almost certainly because he is generously listed as 5-7 and 155 pounds. Perhaps the smallest player in the NFL, Banks got his first crack at the league in the Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp in May, participating on a tryout contract. The Buccaneers did not subsequently sign Banks, though they were impressed with his speed on the practice field, but the Redskins gave him a shot and he has made the most of it as one of the more exciting return men in the NFL.
ONE TO WATCH
There's no doubt that fourth-round rookie Mike Williams has been the breakout star in the Bucs' refashioned receiving corps this season, but his 2010 draft-mate Arrelious Benn has come on strong as well. Benn moved into the starting lineup four games into the season and though he has just 17 catches so far he has been good for roughly one very big play a game. The Bucs like to get it into Benn's hands quickly and let him rumble downfield, as he did on a 28-yard catch-and-run that set up the Bucs' final touchdown against Atlanta.