Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Measuring Stick

A week after proving they can hang with any team in the NFC South, the Bucs now have an opportunity to further prove their worth with a road game against the defending champs

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After vanquishing the Panthers in their house, RB Cadillac Williams and the Buccaneers are thrilled with the opportunity to test themselves in Foxboro

Cadillac Williams is working his way through most of the first-time thrills of being an NFL player.

First touchdown. First 100-yard game. First game ball in the locker room. First win at Lambeau Field (that one came kind of quickly). First appearance in the Hall of Fame (that one came really quickly).

Now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie running back is about to experience another first, and it has him rather eager for Saturday to arrive: First time playing against the New England Patriots.

It's a testament to the awesome strength of the Patriots organization during the first half of this decade that their games are often schedule-circling events for the opposition. Facing the Patriots, the team that built a dynasty in the supposedly dynasty-proof modern NFL era, is like participating in a playoff game. The respect that they garner also attracts greater efforts by their opponents and a greater thrill in defeating them.

Thus, Cadillac views Saturday's game in Foxboro as another welcome-to-the-NFL moment. After all, until this year he's been an NFL fan rather than a player, and that means a watching a whole lot of meaningful Patriot victories.

Asked what he thinks of when he hears 'New England Patriots,' the Bucs rookie responded: "Like, 'Wow, the best.'

"Two back-to-back world championships; they've won three out of the last four years. That's what every NFL team is chasing. I know those guys have lost a couple games this year but when you go back and watch them on film they're still a heck of a team. I'm personally looking forward to going up there and playing an organization like that."

See how Williams phrased that last thought? When you play the Patriots, you play an 'organization,' not just a team. Their strength top to bottom has allowed them to maintain success while most teams cycle up and down, and to weather injuries that might cripple some crews.

And thus, the Patriots are an outstanding measuring stick for Williams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Bucs win' at Green Bay in Week Three told them that old bugaboos didn't have any hold on the current team. The 36-35 victory over Washington told them they could win even when the defense isn't at its best, and that they were willing to bet it all at the end. The win at Carolina last weekend told them that they have just as much claim on the NFC South as any other team. Even the Week 12 loss to Chicago, turning as it did on a surprised missed field goal at the end, told them they could compete against any conference contender.

But playing the Patriots tough in their stadium, getting a win over the NFL's gold-standard franchise, would say there are no hurdles too high to be cleared.

"The Patriots are the champs until there's a newly-crowned champ, just like the [NHL's Tampa Bay] Lightning," said defensive tackle Chris Hovan. "We have to go up there and we have to take it to the champs at their house. Let's be a great road team. Let's finish up this road series going against New England on their turf and let's get the job done."

The Patriots don't have as good of a record as the Panthers, the team the Bucs just beat, but that doesn't lessen what they represented. Said left tackle Anthony Davis: "They're Super Bowl champs. You can throw that record out the window, throw whatever happened to them last week out the window. They're the champs and it's going to be a great test for us, probably our biggest test of the year so far."

The Bucs might have more reason to measure themselves against the Patriots than most teams. They are, after all, the last NFC team to win the Super Bowl. They are the only team to break up the Patriots' four-year run at the title. And they've been one of the most improved, most aggressive and most committed-to-improvement franchises in the league since the dawn of the Glazer Family ownership in 1995. The Bucs certainly have no reason to feel an inferiority complex in relation to any club. But, still, three Super Bowl trophies in four years makes the Patriots, understandably, the league's top dog at the moment.

"The whole organization from the top down is tremendous," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "They've won three out of four championships, they've overcome the loss of some key coaches and key personnel, and they just keep rolling right along. They're great, they're tremendous, they're at the top of the profession. Until somebody can beat them, they can continue to [say] that."

Quarterback Chris Simms had a simple way to express it: "There's not much you have to say about them. They're the New England Patriots. They're what everybody in this league is trying to be right now."

So, again, beating the Patriots means more than getting one win at the moment, though the value of that single 'W' at this point in the season can't be overestimated.

"To go and beat the champs at their house would be huge for us," said center John Wade. "They are the World Champions, three out of four, and it's their house."

Not a word of what Wade, Simms or any of the others had to say should be construed as intimidation. The Bucs believe they can play with any team in the league, and they relish the chance to prove that over the next seven weeks or so. The trip to Foxboro is, if anything, a bonus. It's a marquee, meaningful matchup in the thick of the playoff race and it's a chance to take on the champs.

"We're just looking forward to playing them and trying to improve ourselves," said Gruden. "We have a lot of respect for New England obviously, as everyone should, and we'll consider it a great challenge and a great opportunity."

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