DE Simeon Rice knows his team is going to have its doubters now that the Bucs are 4-5
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been 4-4 before and made the playoffs. They've been 3-4 and made the playoffs – each of the last two years, as a matter of fact.
But the 2001 Buccaneers are now 4-5 after dropping a home game to the Chicago Bears on Sunday, and this is uncharted territory. The Bucs have been 4-5 after nine games just three other times in team history – 1978, 1987 and 1990 – and those seasons don't offer much in terms of comparison to this year's strange campaign.
One could look, instead, to the 1997 Detroit Lions, who rebounded from the same 4-5 start to make the playoffs or, conversely, note that no team since has turned the same trick.
None of that has much relevance, either. The bottom line, as it is understood in the Bucs' locker room, is that there is virtually no margin for error down the stretch.
"We are going to hear 'we can't do it' and our backs are against the wall," said defensive end Simeon Rice, who recorded a sack and two pass break-ups against Chicago. "We put ourselves in this position and it is a position we have to fight our way out of."
The Bucs' up-and-down year has been a frustrating one, with good efforts by the offense or defense rarely occurring on the same day. Such a season could easily lead to divisiveness, but the Bucs' locker room appears to be solid, which will be crucial to a team that must put together a winning effort virtually every week over the last two months.
"We will stay together and we have always done that," said Offensive Coordinator Clyde Christensen, who saw his unit rack up a 414 yards of offense in a losing effort on Sunday. "We are certainly disappointed and there is a lot at stake. We have to go beat St. Louis. None of the other games matter. All 16 are big right now, and St. Louis is enormous. We have to play (every) game as hard as we can and see what happens in the end."
Sitting at 2-3 a few weeks ago, the Bucs trotted out the 'must-win' tag for their home game against Minnesota, then followed with an all-around dominant effort in a 41-14 victory over the Vikings. It was suggested that a win-or-forget-the-playoffs message came out of the Bucs' locker room prior to Sunday's game, but quarterback Brad Johnson was in no mood for such a concession following Sunday's loss.
"I don't think anyone ever said that," said Johnson, who set a Buccaneer record with 40 completions against Chicago. "I don't think anyone said that if we lose, we're out of the playoffs. I would never say that until it was the final game. I don't know who said that, and they're wrong if they did. We still have a chance to make the playoffs. We still have seven games left and somewhere down the line we have to run the table. We have to start winning some ball games, and it starts this week with St. Louis."
What stands in the Bucs' way of such a run is the team's own admitted inconsistency. Scoring chances have gone unrealized and impressive late-game rallies have fallen just short. Amazingly, in their five losses, the Bucs have outscored their opponents 45-28 in the fourth quarter. The Tennessee game ended in overtime. The Green Bay game was lost on a late punt return. In Minnesota, the defense just couldn't stop a 96-yard Viking rally at the end.
And against Chicago, Martin Gramatica's kick hit the upright.
"I think this game is a tale of how our season is going," said Head Coach Tony Dungy after Sunday's loss.
The result has been a team that still believes it can beat anybody but does not believe it has played up to its potential yet.
"It's going to be one of those things where you need to get on a run and really play the type of football we have to play in order to get back in the race," said running back Warrick Dunn, who set a Buccaneer record for backs with 138 receiving yards Sunday. "This is going to be a tough hill to climb. Basically we put ourselves in a hole."
And the first leg of that hill is a steep one, with the Bucs about to head to St. Louis for a Monday Night rematch with the high-powered Rams. Given the two teams' disparate seasons, the Bucs are likely to be significant underdogs. Then again, they weren't exactly spot-on favorites the last time they traveled to the Gateway City, for the 1999 NFC Championship Game.
"Not a lot of people are going to give us a chance against St. Louis," predicted safety John Lynch. "I think we have a tough opponent, but it is one we battled before and we feel like we can hang with them. We have to go to a tough place and get one."
Really, it's simple, if not exactly an enviable position for the team to be in. Every week is going to feel like a must-win, until the record shows otherwise.
"We have St. Louis on Monday night," said tackle Kenyatta Walker, "and we have to go up there and get a win."