As far as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are concerned, the complicated postseason hunt scenarios that govern the final two weeks of play in the 2010 season can be boiled down to a single bullet point:
- Beat Seattle
To be sure, that outcome alone would not put Tampa Bay into the postseason. It is, however, the one thing that the Bucs can control on their own this weekend.
"Take care of our business and everything else will take care of itself," WR Micheal Spurlock said firmly. "In order to look for other people to help you, you've got to help yourself first. We've got to win first. That's step one."
That means focusing on stopping Matt Hasselbeck and Marshawn Lynch; on keeping Josh Freeman clear of 10-sack man Chris Clemons; on keeping Lofa Tatupu from controlling the middle of the field; on slowing down the amazing comeback season of (the other) Mike Williams. It does not mean wasting another thought on the tough loss to Detroit that defined the Bucs' playoff-race end game.
"It was a slugfest last weekend and we're looking forward to getting over it," said Head Coach Raheem Morris, who told his players on Wednesday that their playoffs had already begun. "We had a couple games that we bounced back from this year, lost some tough ones to Pittsburgh and New Orleans. Now you lost one that you felt like you let slip away, and that will be another challenge for our young football team, something that we can grow on. Thankfully we didn't lose much momentum. We still have an opportunity, which is great."
The Buccaneers must win to stay alive, but they will be facing a Seattle team with equal motivation. Though just 6-8, the Seahawks are tied with the St. Louis Rams for first place in the NFC West, with a Seattle-St. Louis showdown looming in Week 16 at Qwest Field. That means a no-holds-barred approach by both teams, and could lead to another offensive-minded outing. In Tampa Bay's last two games, its offense has piled up 768 yards and a stellar 6.6-yards-per play average, but its opponents have also managed 832 yards and 6.4 yards per play. Neither of those games sent the scoreboard into shock – the Bucs won 17-16 at Washington and lost 23-20 to Detroit – but the potential was certainly there. If the same thing unfolds Sunday against Seattle, the Bucs are confident they can prevail.
"We haven't proven to the outside world that we can win a shootout yet," said Morris. "But as far as the belief, we believe we can win any way we have to if we play the way we're supposed to. There's no question that right now our offense is healthier, our offense has more ability to lead us right now than we do on defense. That's what we'll lean on. These guys in this locker room all now we win and lose together as a team – special teams, defense, offense. We can't have a better environment than that in our locker room right now."
Sunday's game will end the Buccaneers' 2010 home schedule, and another date at Raymond James Stadium during a potential playoff run is possible but unlikely. With the Bay area celebrating the holidays as the NFL season sprints to its finish, Morris knows how his team could spread some cheer in front of the home crowd.
"The best treat that I can give them would be a nice win at home," he said. "The best gift we can give these guys is to go out and play fast, smart, hard and consistent. I believe we've been an entertaining team all year. I think we've done a good job with our direction and moving forward. I think it's been a pretty productive season thus far and hopefully we can provide a couple highlight reels here down the stretch to keep our fans happy, give everybody in the stands something to cheer about this holiday season."
Tampa Bay: James Lee left the Detroit game early with an ankle injury and only practiced briefly this week. If he can't play, the Bucs will turn back to their opening-day starter at right tackle, Jeremy Trueblood. WR Sammie Stroughter is also dealing with a hamstring strain that has him questionable for the game.
Seattle: The Seahawks lost their special teams captain, CB Roy Lewis, to a season-ending knee injury last Sunday and then later placed DT Junior Siavii, who suffered a stinger in the same game, on injured reserve. CB Marcus Trufant is fighting back spasms.
- LeGarrette Blount, RB, Buccaneers. Six games into the season, Blount had all of 21 carries and 102 yards. Now, with two weeks to play, he's the leading rookie rusher in the NFL and he has an outside shot at a 1,000-yard campaign. In two of the past three weeks, Blount has surpassed 100 yards and scored a touchdown, which has helped boost his full-season total to 777 yards and six scores. He's also averaged 5.6 yards per tote in that span.
- Ronde Barber, CB, Buccaneers. Tampa Bay lost Aqib Talib to a season-ending injury two weeks ago, but their other starting cornerback has been all over the field in the two games since. Barber had 10 tackles at Washington and another nine against Detroit, including two behind the line of scrimmage, and also broke up a pass and recorded three quarterback pressures. Each one of those pressures was very nearly a sack, as Barber came close to padding his incredible career mark of 26 QB takedowns.
- Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seahawks. It took a little time, but Lynch may be emerging as the productive lead back Seattle was looking for in its midseason trade. The former Bill actually got off to a good start in Seattle, with 133 rushing yards and a score in his first two games. However, he totaled just 140 yards and a TD in the next five contests. In three December games, Lynch has gotten hot again with 172 yards and four touchdowns.
- Raheem Brock, DE, Seahawks. Brock was a starter for most of his eight years in Indianapolis, but despite the fact that he has played a reserve role all year in Seattle he is close to setting his single-season career high in sacks. Thanks to three sacks in the Seahawks' last three games, Brock has six on the season and his career high is 6.5. Brock is now second only to Chris Clemons on the Seahawks' defense in sacks this year.
- Stylez G. White, DE, Buccaneers. White leads the Buccaneers with 22 quarterback pressures, and only injured rookie DT Gerald McCoy (17) is even close. White has had three of those pressures over the past three games, but he hasn't recorded a quarterback sack since notching 1.5 at San Francisco in Week 11. Clearly, White is still getting near the quarterback, but like the Buccaneers' defense as a whole, the sacks aren't coming. That may change on Sunday.
- Sammie Stroughter, WR, Buccaneers. Stroughter is still one of the Bucs' most dependable third-down weapons, and his five-catch game against Atlanta three weeks ago demonstrate that he can be as big a part of the passing attack as he was in his 2009 rookie season. The late-season emergence of Arrelious Benn may be taking away some of Stroughter's targets, and he has just two grabs over the last two games, but the second-year wideout could be in line for a breakout game over the next two weeks.
- Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Seahawks. Seattle's very likeable quarterback has had some fantastic seasons since joining the team in a 2001 trade with Green Bay. However, a recent spate of interceptions (10 in the last four games) could lead to his lowest full-season passer rating since his first year with the team. Hasselbeck's rating currently sits at 73.1 but his history suggests he's capable of finishing the season on a strong note.
- Marcus Trufant, CB, Seahawks. After a seven-pick Pro Bowl season in 2007, Trufant recorded just three interceptions combined over the next two seasons. It appeared as if he might put up '07 type numbers again this year when he intercepted a pass in the Seahawks' season opener and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown. However, that has proved to be Trufant's only pick of the year to this point. Trufant has eight passes defensed on the year but none in the last five games.
- One area in which the Bucs have remained consistently strong in 2010 is third-down conversion rate on offense. Tampa Bay has a 42.1% third-down success mark this year, and the team record is 42.9, set in 1984. Only four times in 14 games has the Bucs' third-down rate dipped below 40%, and it's never been worse than 33.3%. If there's an area in which the team has improved lately, it's in third downs of seven to 10 yards; the Bucs are eight of 13 (61.5%) in that situation over the last four games.
- After enjoying a mild run of success in November and the first part of December, Tampa Bay's run defense has run into a problem again. Over the last two games, Buc opponents have rushed for 369 yards and 6.6 yards per carry. Head Coach Raheem Morris posits that part of the issue is a new influx of young players in the lineup, some of whom are having the sort of gap-control problems other players overcame earlier in the year.
- Seattle ranks third in the NFL in red zone defense, as defined by the percentage of trips inside the 20 that end in touchdowns. Four weeks ago, Kansas City put a dent in that number by scoring TDs on all five of their red zone trips, but since then the Seahawks' D has gotten stingy again, allowing the next three opponents to finish just five of 11 red zone drives in the end zone. Overall, Seattle opponents have scored TDs on 27 of 59 such trips, or 45.8%.
- The Seahawk's negative-9 turnover ratio ranks 30th in the NFL and their 30 giveaways overall are fifth-worst in the league. However, the team's specific problem seems to have switched halfway through the season. Seattle lost eight fumbles through the first eight games but has lost only two since. Meanwhile, Seahawk QBs threw eight interceptions through the first eight games but have tossed 11 in just six games after the midway point, including eight in the last three outings.
Playing behind Seattle's talented starters, reserve linebacker Matt McCoy hasn't seen much time on defense in his first year with the Seahawks. He has, however, been outstanding on special teams, leading the squad with 14 kick-coverage tackles. That's not surprising to the Buccaneers, who had McCoy on their active roster for most of the last two seasons. McCoy played in 17 games in 2008 and 2009 and racked up 14 special teams tackles and one forced fumble in that span. A former second-round pick, McCoy started his career in Philadelphia in 2005 and split the 2007 season between Philly and New Orleans before signing with the Buccaneers in the spring of '08.
ONE TO WATCH
Rookie WR Preston Parker has just one catch for four yards this season, but he is finding ways to make himself valuable, which is why he's been active on game day the last two weekends after spending the previous three on the eight-man inactive list. Parker can help the Buccaneers in the return game – he has 10 kickoff returns for 178 yards this season – and last week he even got a snap in on defense. Versatile and athletic, Parker came in as part of a dime package and blitzed Detroit QB Drew Stanton out of the slot. There's no telling if the Buccaneers have more plans for Parker on defense, but they are obviously intrigued by his talents.