LB Derrick Brooks believes the Bucs tenuous playoff situation will bring out the fight in his team
It's fashionable in and out of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization to say the team's collective back is against the wall.
If that's true – and who is going to argue? – then it's the St. Louis Rams who are holding out the bandanna and asking for any last words.
At 4-5 after a heartbreaking home loss to Chicago, the Bucs' playoff hopes are injured but still very much alive. A loss on any of the last seven weekends of the regular season would drain a good bit of the team's postseason life, however, and the Rams are first in line to form a firing squad.
At 8-1 and playing at home, St. Louis would appear to be as formidable a challenge as the Bucs could possibly draw to begin their seven-game run at resurrection.
However, linebacker Derrick Brooks is not ready to submit quietly to the Bucs' would-be executioners on Monday night. The fact that the next opponent is the Rams, with whom the Bucs have locked horns so memorably in each of the last two seasons, might actually be a point around which the Bucs can rally.
"With all that on the line, going to face a team that probably hates us much we dislike them as a team – it's a big rivalry – I like our chances," said Brooks. "This has forced us to come out fighting. If we want to pull out of this and go northward, stop this thing from rolling downhill, it's got to start this week."
Depending on whether they focus on the 1999 NFC Championship Game, which the Rams pulled out, 11-6, in the final few minutes, or the Monday night rematch last year, which Tampa Bay won at the end, 38-35, the Bucs believe they can either slow down St. Louis' high-powered attack or match it shot for shot.
Since the 1999 game was played in the Dome at America's Center, it is most likely that defensive slugfest, more in keeping with the Bucs' traditional style, that is Tampa Bay's hopeful blueprint for Monday.
"We're going back to a place where we were maybe one or two plays away from a Super Bowl," said Brooks. "That's why I like our chances, because we've dealt with all of those things before and come so close."
Those Bucs of 1999 were flying high themselves, having won eight of their final nine regular season games and a thrilling Divisional Playoff Game against Atlanta. The Bucs held nine of 10 opponents to 17 points or less in that span. The current Tampa Bay squad has yet to put together two consecutive wins this season, but Brooks' comparison might not be that far-fetched. In each case, the Bucs were, or are, heavy underdogs and were, or are, in a must-win situation.
There was a much better buzz around the team before their last visit to St. Louis, but there still were few outside of the organization that truly believed the Bucs could win. Inside, the team was convinced that it was prepared to pull off the upset. If not for a 30-yard Kurt Warner-to-Ricky Proehl touchdown pass with four minutes to go, they may have been proven correct.
Does the same confidence live inside One Buccaneer Place now, as another Monday night showdown approaches. That question may be answered in the coming days, but it is apparent that Brooks, the team leader and seventh-year veteran, believes it is.
"Not ever being in this position, we're going to find out a lot about us as a team," he said. "If we're the fighters that I know we are, we're going to come out of this thing. There's a lot of football left to be played. We're down right now and there's nowhere to look but up."
As to the thought that the 8-1, 33-points-a-game Rams are too steep of a challenge for a struggling Tampa Bay team, Brooks believes it is really the Bucs themselves that could stand in the way of victory. That's a valid thought, given that most of Tampa Bay's five losses can be traced to surprising and uncharacteristic miscues by the Bucs.
"In my opinion, it's only going to be as hard as we make it," said Brooks of the challenge in St. Louis. "If we go up there and don't play well, we're going to make it hard. If we go up there and put our game together, we're going to come away with a win."