The Bucs want to avoid a finish like last year's loss at Tennessee
In the last three years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have lost a game by 20 points or more exactly once.
That was last year's season finale at Tennessee, three days after Christmas. The Buccaneers had been eliminated from the playoff race the weekend before, while the Titans came into the game with an 11-4 record, a playoff berth in hand and a chance to win their division and host a first-round playoff game.
The final score was 33-13, Tennessee, and the particulars weren't much prettier; suffice it to say the Bucs were never in the game.
Still, if you had to pick one game in which to get blown out, that was it, right? The game was virtually irrelevant. Go through the motions and get ready for the '04 offseason.
The feel of that loss still lingers with the team, even after a follow-up 2004 season that was filled with its own share of disappointments. The Buccaneers once again face a season finale with no playoff implications, but they are eager to avoid a finish like last year's, one that could linger into the 2005 offseason.
"We play to win the football game," said cornerback Ronde Barber. "It will carry some weight, no matter what we do. It carried some weight last year when we went to Tennessee and didn't play well. We want to finish on a high note. Even though we have lost three in a row, we still want to finish with a win."
To put it as plainly as possible, this is not a 'mail-it-in' game for the Buccaneers, though it is tempting to make that analysis. With only 16 games on the schedule and a week's worth of buildup to each one, it's hard to diminish the game-day feeling of importance for any contest. No one would deny that postseason possibilities increase a game's significance, but every contest on the schedule carries its own weight.
"I don't give a damn where we're playing or what the stakes are," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "They've got 16 of these games on the schedule and, by God, you're supposed to win them all. That's the goal and I don't think this changes anything. We realize the stakes aren't as high as we'd like them to be, but it's a great opportunity for both teams, Arizona and Tampa, to get a win to close out the season and hopefully take some momentum off of that into the offseason."
Of course, Buccaneer players are well aware of the perception that Sunday's game has no meaning. Most of this week's discussion has focused on the possibility of a quarterback change, not because the team needs to make one in order to win but because the final game is seen as a good opportunity to experiment.
Chris Simms, the potential replacement at quarterback for an injured Brian Griese, obviously wants to start and feels confident that he is the best option. Still, even he sees the game in terms of what it means for the team as opposed to what it means for him.
"Our team has a lot to play for, too," said Simms. "We're all competitors out here. I don't think any of us want to end this season off in a losing fashion. We might as well go out there and beat somebody's butt, if you're going to go out there. Don't waste your time going out for a trip to Arizona; we might as well play hard and maybe win a game."
Linebacker Derrick Brooks, the team's emotional leader, says the issue of how seriously the Bucs will take this game has already been addressed in the locker room. There is a sense that nothing short of an all-out effort will be tolerated. Safety Dwight Smith says the fact that some people expect him to 'lay down and quit' makes him want to play even harder than before, and he openly implored the man next to him to do the same.
Griese, who was not with the team last year when they endured their lone 20-point loss of the last three seasons, is confident the effort will be there. His evidence: The Bucs have played hard every weekend, regardless of the outcome.
"We've been through quite a bit this year as a team and I've been pretty proud of the way that we've continued to fight each and every week," said Griese. "I know we haven't played our best football this year, but you can't really question the pride and the effort that we've put forth this year. That's the way we want to finish the year: Go out there and get a win, and play with tremendous effort."