According to DE Simeon Rice, the Bucs' playoffs begin Sunday in Cincinnati
The National Football League season is about to enter December and, with it, the postseason stretch drive. Were this Major League Baseball and the September playoff run, a team's progress toward the postseason would be measured in relation to a 'Magic Number.'
No such statistic is employed in the NFL, where the playoff picture can be confusing right up to the last day of the season. For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, though, the Magic Number is obvious.
Amazingly, but not quietly, the Buccaneers have still yet to win two games in a row in 2001. The last time Tampa Bay went this far into the season without back-to-back victories was 1996, Head Coach Tony Dungy's first year, when the team started out 1-8. Notably, they did win games 10 and 11 in a row, which is exactly what the Bucs are trying to do now.
It is just within the bounds of possibility that a team could go an entire season without stringing together two straight victories and still get a postseason bid – Dallas and Detroit made the playoffs as recently as 1999 with an 8-8 record, the best possible record under those conditions. Not only is that unlikely, however, it's not exactly a precursor for postseason success. Those Cowboy and Lion teams lost in the Wild Card round in '99, as did the only other two teams to make the playoffs at 8-8, the 1991 New York Jets and the 1990 New Orleans Saints.
So, suffice it to say, the Bucs are fixated on the number two. Even before they left the locker room on St. Louis after an emotionally-charged, 24-17 win over the Rams on Monday, Buc players were talking about the importance of winning at Cincinnati. That feeling has not faded as the week of Bengals preparation has advanced.
"Hopefully, if we can win a Monday night game on the road, we can come back and win (in Cincinnati)," said quarterback Brad Johnson. "We haven't strung two games in a row yet. That's been our biggest downfall, for whatever reason. It hasn't been one person or one thing, but the best thing is to string two victories back to back."
By Wednesday, players are often repeating the most insistent message of their head coach, and that appears to be the case here. Like any coach, Dungy preaches the one-game-at-a-time message, but now that the foundation for a winning streak has been put in place with Monday's win, he wants to make sure his team seizes the opportunity.
"We haven't won back to back this year yet, so that's the first thing that's on our mind," said Dungy. "It's not necessarily where you play, but we've got to put a streak together. We're not going to be able to afford any slip-ups in December. We know what the stakes are. We've just got to go out and do it."
The Bucs have entered the last three Decembers with records of 5-7, 7-4 and 7-5, and gone 3-1 in each of those critical months, securing two playoff berths and one division title. However, each of those three previous campaigns were more defined by long winning and losing streaks, not the week-by-week peaks and valleys of 2001. Even with the big upset in St. Louis, are these Bucs confident that they can put together one of their notorious December streaks?
"We have confidence that we're playing well," said linebacker Derrick Brooks. "This came coming up is probably the most important game of the season, in my mind. We have to go back on the road with another win, and start December with a win."
According to both Lynch and Dungy, the Bucs had believed that their second-half surge was going to begin with the 41-14 pasting they put on Minnesota on October 28. However, that game was followed by a heartbreaking, one-point loss at Green Bay, a narrow victory at winless Detroit and another devastatingly tight loss to Chicago at home. The Bucs thus had to treat the game at St. Louis, in which they were 10-point underdogs, as a 'must-win,' and they are basically taking that same attitude for the entire month of December.
"We're in a situation where our playoffs are basically starting already, because everything for us counts," said defensive end Simeon Rice. "We can't take the chance of falling back at all. We have to get it done in a serious way."
It's more serious than Rice even realizes, probably. The Bucs are no strangers to winning streaks, or even decent road-game records in recent seasons. However, winning on the road on two consecutive weekends is very much a rarity in Tampa Bay history. The team did it twice during its magical playoff run in 1997 (at Detroit and Minnesota in weeks two and three and at Indianapolis and Atlanta in weeks 10 and 11), but hasn't repeated the feat since. Before 1997, it hadn't happened for the Bucs since November of 1989 (at Chicago and Phoenix); before that, the only other occurrence was in September of 1979 (at Baltimore and Green Bay). The Bucs can't afford to wait another decade for lightning to strike again.
"It's an emotional roller coaster each week," said Johnson. "How you adjust and how you handle it, and how fresh you come back the next week is really how successful your team will be. We've handled adversity, now let's see if we can bounce back after winning a big ballgame."