LB Derrick Brooks, who helped the Bucs force five turnovers Monday night, says the win over the Rams is meaningless if it doesn't trigger a streak
If, prior to Monday night's game, you had all but written off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' chances to win at St. Louis, we can forgive you. This time.
After the Bucs' loss to the first-place Chicago Bears last Sunday, it was natural, and perhaps even logical, to consider Tampa Bay's season in mortal danger. The explosive, confident, 8-1 Rams were waiting, in St. Louis, and a loss by the 10-point underdogs would drop the Bucs to 4-6.
That position, most agreed, would be about as far from the playoffs as Mariah Carey is from an Oscar. There were probably a few Buccaneer-season obituaries already in first draft.
After a life-affirming, 24-17 victory over the Rams, however, it is time to hastily re-evaluate. One win does not cure all ills, but it has certainly reinvigorated the Bucs' playoff chase. Just how much does Monday night's win mean, from the players' perspective.
Okay, that's the short answer. Though the Bucs' locker room was a happy place late Monday night, the sense of accomplishment was secondary to a feeling of opportunity. An opportunity that can't be squandered. The win in St. Louis means nothing if the Bucs can't follow it up next Sunday with another victory in Cincinnati. Tampa Bay has yet to win two games in a row this season.
"I am very proud of these guys," said linebacker Derrick Brooks, who looked closer to his all-over-the-field Pro Bowl form on Monday than he has in quite some time. "It is hard for me to put into words, but this is a big win for us and our organization. If we don't go out and win next week, this win means nothing."
The Bucs hope and expect to win every game, but that's unlikely for any team, in any season. When you ground Monday's win in the context of Tampa Bay's up-and-down, .500 season, perhaps what it really does is balance out the cosmic ledger after that disappointing home loss to the Bears.
"Really, it's one win right now," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "Again, the thing we haven't done is put a consistent string together. We definitely needed to pick one up on the road after losing one at home last week. We're back to five-and-five and we have six games left. This is our time of year and now we can get going. We're at least in the hunt. I think it was big for us. To come in here and beat St. Louis is a heck of an accomplishment. Now our test will be next week, going on the road again."
Dungy alluded to the Bucs' usual pattern of starting slow then beating almost everybody down the stretch. Tampa Bay won eight of its last nine in 1999 to finish 11-5 and win the NFC Central for the first time in 20 years, then followed with a seven-of-nine run to leap to 10-6 and secure another playoff spot last season. This season, that expected strong finish seemed to be off to a questionable start, with two losses already in November, but perhaps the victory over the Rams is an indication that things are finally coming together for this star-crossed team.
"This is a big win for our organization," said cornerback Brian Kelly. "We are going to use this to catapult us into the rest of the season. This was the place and time to get a win, and now we have to not miss a beat coming up against Cincinnati."
Defensive tackle Warren Sapp said there was a 'buzz' of energy in the Bucs' locker room before the game, created by the sense that the season was on the line. Obviously, the players responded well to that backs-against-the-wall atmosphere, and Sapp figures they need to maintain that approach for the regular season's last six weeks. Some of the same things were mentioned after the Bucs' 41-14 demolishing of Minnesota a month ago, but an expected winning streak never materialized.
"We've got to get on a roll, and the only way you can get on a roll is to win one," said Sapp. "We won a good one tonight. Maybe it will give us some momentum and maybe it won't. We've got to set the same frame of mind next week."
So is this game going to be a springboard?
"We hope it is," said Dungy. "We've had those in the past. We've got to get into a groove where we're playing good games week in and week out."
Or is it merely an example of what the Bucs have been claiming they could do all along, when the mistakes were cleaned up and everyone played to his potential?
"They deserve the praise they get," said CB Brian Kelly of the Rams. "They were a hot team and the best team in the NFL. But we also deserve the credit we are going to get. We were not playing our best ball until we came in here."
At least in the first blush of victory, it seems certain to be just one thing: a confidence builder. Beating the Rams in St. Louis doesn't guarantee the Bucs any residual victories over the last six weeks. It does, however, give them reason to believe they can do what it takes to return to the playoffs for a third straight year.
"Well, we have to start playing well and put some back-to-back weeks together, but when you can go to St. Louis and win, you've got to feel you can go anywhere in the NFL and win," said Dungy. "Now we've just got to do it."