With a familiar symbol around which to rally, the Bucs are prepared to put in the necessary effort to stay in the playoff race
The media crowd was close enough to Jon Gruden on Tuesday afternoon to get a whiff of the cough drop he was working on between questions. His voice was a bit scratchy, too, undoubtedly stressed by the two-hour practice his Tampa Bay Buccaneers had just finished.
The already brutal hours of an NFL season in its fourth month have been compressed even further this week by a Saturday game. Gruden and the Buccaneers are working harder in less time – as are, undoubtedly, the New England Patriots – to prepare for the enormous conflict between those two teams this weekend. A day out of the schedule means later nights and earlier mornings, and the significance of the game means more is riding on the results of these Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.
So the cough drop said what Gruden would probably never say – that such preparations require a great payment of effort from the coaches and players on any given NFL team in this position. What the Buccaneers will say about this situation is better reflected in The Rock.
Yes, that rock.
The huge, craggy, white rock that mysteriously appeared in the Bucs' locker room halfway through their 2002 season of destiny has made its reappearance for this stretch drive. It was hauled into the team meeting room last week before Tampa Bay's spirited invasion of Carolina and it is once again serving as a symbol for the things that needs to be done in order for the Bucs to reach their goals.
Complaining about the circumstances isn't one of those things. Relishing the opportunity and doing everything to take advantage of it is.
"We just wanted to emphasize that The Rock doesn't have any feelings," said Gruden. "You can't have a weak mind. You just have to keep swinging that sledgehammer at that rock. You don't know which swing is going to crack that rock, but if you keep hitting it as hard as you can with as many guys as we can, we've got a chance to break it open and explode onto the scene. Who knows what will happen?"
The Bucs know this much: If they continue to win over the last three weeks of the season, they'll be back in the playoffs for the first time since that magical 2002 season. They don't "need any help" from any other teams, as the saying goes. That doesn't mean it will be easy, but it does mean that the Bucs can fall back on the things that have gotten them to this point, the hard work that has produced a 9-4 record, tied for second-best in the NFC.
"We've got to help ourselves," said Gruden. "We have had hard-fought victories. Every one we've won has been a slugfest, man, it's been a hard game to win. So we've got to help ourselves. We're not counting on anybody ever helping us. We've just got to lean on each other and continue to grow up together and hopefully find a way to win another football game.
"We just want to win another game and try to keep pace with the teams in the NFC who are trying to qualify for this tournament. We need the game. We're tied with Carolina and we worked hard to get to this point. It's not getting easier for us, on the road in Foxboro. It's a short week and it's a great challenge for us."
If the Bucs can leave Foxboro with a win, they will finish the season with two home games against opponents whom they've already beaten this season, Atlanta and New Orleans. But those two games are so far down the road they're not worth discussing yet. It's not as if there's any free time to survey the NFC scene this week, anyway.
"We're not going to talk about winning three in a row until we can win one more game," said Gruden firmly.
Nor will the games already played have any impact on the Bucs' efforts this week. Players were repeatedly asked on Tuesday if the emotions of winning such an important game in Carolina might lead to a let-down this week. That doesn't particularly concern Gruden. He understands that his players value every win more than some people realize, and also get over the wins and losses more quickly than most would expect.
"Every game we've won has been emotional," he said. "We were thrilled to win in Baton Rouge, to be honest with you, which we should have been. But I think our team is level-headed. We've got a lot of guys who understand that they have to be at their best for us to win. They know who we're playing and they know what we're up against, and they also respect the fact that we're playing pretty good ourselves. So we're going to keep it real shallow and we're going to go out there and do the best we can to win."
Preliminary Injury Updates
Though the week of preparation has been condensed by the Saturday kickoff, the Bucs and Patriots are still not required to submit an official injury report until Wednesday. Gruden did provide some insight into the health of the roster on Tuesday, but the players won't have any official designations for another 24 hours, and situations could change in the interim.
However, it still appears as if starting defensive tackle Anthony McFarland will miss his first game of the season thanks to a hamstring suffered early in the Carolina contest. Gruden referred to McFarland as "doubtful" again on Tuesday and the veteran defender did not practice with the team.
Kicker Matt Bryant did not test out his leg on Tuesday but is still expected to be in good shape for this Sunday's game. He missed the Week 13 game in Baton Rouge with a hamstring injury but returned to go two-for-two on field goal tries Sunday in Charlotte. The Bucs still have a second kicker, Todd France, on the 53-man roster, however, indicating that they are still keeping an eye on Bryant's status.
Other players to watch including linebacker Marquis Cooper, who has missed the last two games with a chest strain, and cornerback Juran Bolden, who has a "mild" leg strain that isn't expected to keep him out of action.
The Patriots often submit a rather lengthy injury report, but it appears as if their injury-plagued roster is coming back together a bit for the stretch drive. Defensive lineman Richard Seymour missed a month's worth of games in the middle of the season but has rounded back into shape over the last five weeks. LB Tedy Bruschi has made a surprising and inspiring return from the stroke that struck him after the last Super Bowl and was supposed to keep him out for this whole season. Running backs Kevin Faulk and Corey Dillon are back after missing two games together.
There are, of course, quite a few Patriots on injured reserve – nine in all, including five defensive backs – but the team is still loaded with weapons and it knows how to use them.
"They had a tough loss at Kansas City [in Week 12] and they rebounded with back-to-back dominating victories, really," said Gruden. "Thirty-two first downs to eight on the road last week [in Buffalo] is pretty impressive. They got some players back, too; let's be honest. Seymour coming back; Bruschi coming back and playing; Faulk and Dillon are both back. They're a great team. They're a big challenge, there's no question."
Cast Your Votes
Pro Bowl balloting on NFL.com comes to an end on Tuesday, but opportunities to vote for a Buccaneer player will continue through the week.
Running back Carnell Williams is once again up for the NFL Rookie of the Week award, which he monopolized during the first three weeks of the season. After he was chosen for the first three awards, the honor has gone to a different player every week. Williams could take the award back if he gathers more votes than Baltimore wide receiver Mark Clayton, Green Bay running back Samkon Gado, Tennessee cornerback Pacman Jones and Philadelphia running back Ryan Moats.
To cast a vote for NFL Rookie of the Week, click here.
The NFL will conclude almost two months of fan balloting for the 2006 Pro Bowl on Tuesday. NFL players and coaches will cast their votes for the all-star game over the next week. The NFL is the only professional sports league that chooses its all-star game on the basis of the combined votes of fans, players and coaches.
The Pro Bowl squads will be announced on ESPN next Wednesday, December 21.
To get a last ballot in under the wire and maybe give your favorite Buccaneer one last kick in the competition, click here.