Tampa Bay Buccaneers

New Day, New Game

The Bucs and Falcons readily acknowledge the intensity of their intra-division series and the importance of Sunday’s game, but neither team puts too much stock in past results

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DE Simeon Rice wants his team to remember how hard they all had to work to stop Michael Vick and the Falcons last year

Fifty-seven seconds.

That's the combined amount of time – out of 120 minutes – that one might consider irrelevant in the two Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Atlanta Falcons contests of 2005.

The Bucs and Falcons are preparing for yet another meeting this weekend, and it would be an upset if the game was either lopsided or unemotional. Even though the Falcons are coming off a dominant win at Carolina and the Bucs are trying to forget a shutout home loss to Baltimore, both sides of this Sunday's contest in the Georgia Dome are expecting yet another cuticle-peeler.

"It's always close when we go up there or they come to us," said Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton. "We're definitely preparing ourselves to be in a dogfight and play it to the end, until the clock reads zero, and see how it comes out."

Clayton isn't trading in hyperbole. Last year's two Bucs-Falcons games literally came down to the wire, with the Bucs winning both on clutch field goals. In Atlanta on November 20, Matt Bryant kicked a 45-yard game-winner with 42 seconds left after Derrick Brooks forced a Michael Vick fumble. That 30-27 victory was almost exactly repeated on Christmas Eve Day in Tampa when Bryant's 41-yarder with 15 seconds left in overtime won it 27-24. The few ticks left on the clock for the Falcons – 57 combined in the two games – wasn't nearly enough to mount a comeback.

Obviously, those two wins over a division rival went a long way towards securing the NFC South title for Tampa Bay. The Bucs have actually won three straight over the Falcons and nine of the last 11 between the two teams. However, one of the top performers in that series, Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice, says it's more important to remember the circumstances of last year's two victories than to count up recent wins and losses.

Those two wins could have easily been losses, if not for the fact that every second on the clock was treated as relevant by the Buccaneers. Really, the Bucs were extremely close to going 0-2 in those games; Brooks' leaping forced-fumble and Dewayne White's blocked field goal in overtime essentially made the difference

"If we know that this is going to take every bit of our effort, and this game is going to be a character-building game for the rest of the season, if we have that understanding, we'll be okay because we'll be willing to go to any depths to get it," said the always-philosophical Rice. "But if we don't – and we think it's going to be a casual walk and we forget those games we won were very close – then it's going to smack us in the face because we're not going to realize how we fought for these games."

The Bucs have returned from four of their last five jaunts to Atlanta with victories, and they've even enjoyed a decent amount of traveling fan support in the stands. But the Falcons appear to be on the rise and it's hard to deny that this series has taken a bit of a personal turn since the two teams joined the new NFC South in 2002. The division has turned into one of the most competitive and successful in the league, and there's no doubt the Falcons see the huge edge they would gain by starting the season with two straight wins over the teams that finished 11-5 in the South last year.

In other words, the calendar may say September but this one's going to feel a lot like January.

"I look forward to these games," said Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden. "I think they do, too. It will be a frenzied atmosphere, it will be a playoff atmosphere. They're 1-0 and we're not. We've got to find a way to keep up with them and tie them. This gives us a chance to do that. If we can play our best we've got a chance."

Of course, the combatants on both sides are insisting that this game and this scenario – a chance for the Falcons to go 2-0 or the Bucs to rebound impressively from their rough start – is all that is on their minds. The past, whether confidence-inspiring for the Bucs or revenge-inspiring for the Falcons, is a complete non-issue, all say.

"They won their first game," said Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks. "That's all we can judge them on right now. They are leading the division at 1-0 and we are trying to pull even with them."

Vick was even more emphatic about the irrelevance of 2002: "It's over and done with. We can't do anything about last year. Everything that happened last year doesn't matter anymore anyways. It's all in the past. It's all about what you do now, and just go out there and make sure the things that happened last year don't happen this year."

That's the approach Atlanta Head Coach Jim Mora is expecting from his players, and there are certainly enough new faces and new circumstances in both locker rooms to make it an easy sell.

"I think every year is different and you want to focus on this week and not what has happened in the past," said Mora. "We respect them as a very good football team. Certainly, we know they beat us twice last year by three points each time. Our focus needs to be not on that, but on figuring out a way that we can maybe come out with a win this time."

NFL coaches stress the importance of "now" so routinely to their players that it's not surprising when players profess to have adopted such a narrow and current focus. Certainly, there's no reason to suspect that either side is dwelling on past successes or failures, or letting the emotions of the series affect their preparations.

Still, it's telling that, while players claim no extra motivation from past results, they often do attribute such motivations to the other side.

"It's always a tough game, I think essentially because they're in our division," said Clayton. "They have a heck of a team and they always come to play. We've got the best of them the last three times we've played them, so we know going into their house they're going to be up for it."

Perhaps the specifics of the teams' motivations aren't important. Safe to say, both sides will be "up for it." And safe to say, every second will count.

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