LB Derrick Brooks will help his teammates focus on their two remaining home games and a serious playoff chase
You have to go back six years to find another game in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were shut out. You have to go back seven weeks to find another Buccaneer road trip that ended in a loss. And you have to go back three weeks to find any Buccaneer loss whatsoever.
But you only have to go back six days to find the blueprint for how the Bucs will handle Saturday's 28-0 blanking at New England.
Six days before their worst outing of the season, the Buccaneers had probably their best, a 20-10 win at Carolina that vanquished a hated NFC South rival and gave them a portion of the division lead. It was a heady moment for the team, perhaps their most meaningful win and most glowing postgame feeling since the 2002 season.
And it had to be forgotten by Monday.
The Bucs try to treat the days that follow every game the same way. Get too high after wins or too low after losses and you'll end up on an emotional roller coaster that will affect your performance. The Bucs didn't think they were unbeatable after dominating the Panthers, and they don't think they are incompetent after Saturday's loss.
"Whether we won or lost today, the formula would still be the same, to get over it," said linebacker Derrick Brooks, the team's emotional leader. "The best thing we can do is learn from our mistakes today and get over it. Let's not let this loss linger on and affect us in our next two games at home against divisional opponents."
In 2002, as the Bucs gradually developed from fringe playoff competitor to real player to Super Bowl champion, they famously never lost two games in a row. An emotional loss at Philadelphia, for instance, was followed by a giant, come-from-behind victory at Carolina. The Bucs eventually got their revenge in Philly in the NFC Championship Game, and it was clear that their previous loss there didn't affect their mental approach to the game.
This year's Bucs have lost two in a row, but only once, and they've generally responded to losses well. For instance, a missed field goal in Week 12 cost the Bucs a chance to upend Chicago in a 13-10 loss, but they followed with road wins at New Orleans and Carolina, and in the process thrust themselves back into the thick of the NFC playoff race.
"One of the things this team knows how to do this year is bounce back after a loss," said Brooks, pointing out without saying it directly that they weren't so strong in that department in 2003 and 2004. "Today was a loss and we realize that Atlanta is coming to town for a big division game. We know how to get over losses."
Perspective isn't an easy thing to get a grasp on in the ugly hours that follow a lopsided loss. But it will probably be waiting for most of the Bucs on Monday morning, as they realize that a 2-1 record over the course of a wickedly-timed three-game road trip might be the key to the season.
"We won two out of three," said quarterback Chris Simms. "No one likes the taste of this one but we've got the last two at home and we've just got to make sure we finish strong."
The Bucs lost their control-your-own-destiny hold on the NFC South with Saturday's loss, but they would regain it if Carolina also loses Sunday at New Orleans. Even if the Panthers prevail, the Bucs still have a very good chance to win the division at 11-5. Saturday's loss at New England didn't affect the tiebreaker leads the Bucs hold over Carolina, which would come into play if the two teams finish the season in a tie.
"We've got two division games coming up and we can still win this division," said tackle Kenyatta Walker. "We've got to keep our minds on that. We can still win the NFC South, and get that 10th win against Atlanta, who's coming in and are going to be very upset about the previous game. We've still got some challenges ahead of us and this can still be a successful year."
What the Bucs will not do is minimize the importance of Saturday's game. A four-touchdown loss in mid-December can't be considered a great sign for a team with designs on a deep playoff run. But the 1999 Buccaneers lost 45-0 at Oakland and came back to win their last two contests and the NFC Central on the way to the NFC Championship Game. The loss to New England does not have to define the 2005 Buccaneers or their playoff-run hopes.
"We've been talking the last couple weeks that you want to be playing great football in December as you push toward the playoffs," said cornerback Ronde Barber. "Yeah, this is a setback, there's no doubt about it, but we'll go back to work this week and try to get back on track."