The New York Giants lead the NFC East division with a 4-4 record. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who welcome the Giants to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, hope to get back to .500 merely to stay relevant in the NFC playoff hunt. The Buccaneers are in position to match that 4-4 record because they managed to pull out an inspirational overtime victory in Atlanta one week ago.
Buccaneer-Falcon games have plenty of built-in emotion, and that certainly ratchets up when a game goes into an extra period. This particular contest, however, came with some additional personal motivation on Tampa Bay's sideline. Buccaneer players rallied around rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander, whose younger brother had been killed earlier in the weekend.
One might expect a win under such circumstances would have a lasting effect on a team's season, and perhaps this one will. From a practical standpoint, however, Head Coach Lovie Smith needed his team to move on to the next task, starting on Wednesday, just as they had moved on after an equally painful loss in Washington the week before.
"You celebrate a victory and then it's time to move on to the next one," said Smith. "We knew the Giants were coming into town. But guys did rally around a special teammate to them, knew what he was going through, but life has to go on and that's what we've done."
Alexander didn't just provide his teammates with motivation to play harder. He also stood out as perhaps the biggest star of the game, thanks to his team-leading 11 tackles, his momentum-changing strip of Julio Jones and his subsequent interception to set up a touchdown. Alexander had another pick and long return earlier in the first half erased by a penalty.
Alexander became the first Buccaneer defender with an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery all in one game since John Lynch did it way back in 1996. Smith, who preaches takeaways above all else to his defense, probably can't expect that level of production every game from his rookie defender, but neither would it surprise him.
"First off, he's a talented player," said the coach. "He has what you're looking for, the mindset to be a MIKE linebacker in the league. You know what to expect from him in that role: outstanding play. And then you throw in an interception that was called back; it's hard for a middle linebacker to have that type of production. But it's possible, which he's shown. He's going to set that bar up pretty high but he can achieve more than that.
"As you clinic-talk about how to take the ball away, that's a perfect example of it. It's hard to do, but you have to have that mindset first, and the instincts to know that you should attempt to do something like that then. He has all those things you're looking for."
Overall, the Buccaneers have forced seven turnovers over the last three games, turning all seven into points (a total of 41 on five touchdowns and three field goals). Meanwhile, the offense has turned the ball over just once in that span, and since it was a desperation pitch on the last play from scrimmage in Washington in Week Seven, it did not result in any points. Keeping a run like that going against the Giants will be difficult, as this week's opponent leads the NFL with a plus-11 turnover ratio. Quarterback Eli Manning has thrown 17 touchdown passes against just four interceptions, including six TDs and no picks last weekend in New Orleans.
"Eli Manning's one of the best quarterbacks in the league, he's been that way for a long time," said Smith. "Very few guys have two Super Bowl victories, so it's not unexpected when he has a game like he had last week. But for us, we need to keep the ball in front of us. They have playmakers at just about every position. It's about us playing our defense. We saw progress last week; we'll need to make a lot more this week. It starts up front – we need a pass-rush and then from there we need to keep our eye on the ball."
If the Bucs are to get pressure on Manning, they'll have to do it without their 2015 sack leader, Jacquies Smith. Smith has been ruled out for the game due to an ankle injury, although fellow starting defensive end William Gholston (knee) has been cleared to play. WR Vincent Jackson will also miss a second straight game due to a knee injury, while TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins is also out, missing his sixth consecutive contest with a shoulder ailment.
Smith, Jackson and Seferian-Jenkins are among the Buccaneers' seven game-day inactives for Sunday, along with safety Major Wright (out with a hamstring injury), S D.J. Swearinger (toe), DE Lawrence Sidbury and QB Ryan Griffin.
The Giants' seven inactive players are CB Prince Amukamara, CB Leon McFadden, LB Uani Unga, LB J.T. Thomas, T Bobby Hart, WR Victor Cruz and TE Larry Donnell. Amukamara, Unga, Thomas, Cruz and Donnell are out due to injury.
Buccaneers rookie QB Jameis Winston will attempt to move the football again this week without several of his most dynamic weapons on the field, just as he did in the win at Atlanta. Most importantly, of course, he'll need to continue his recent run of avoiding turnovers, which will be easier to do if Doug Martin and the Bucs' fourth-ranked rushing attack continues to produce.
"[We've seen] growth in that area, as far as ball security, of course starting with Jameis our quarterback," said Smith. "Once you secure the football you have a great chance of winning the game. And then if you can take it away on the other side, which we're doing, [it helps]. And from there just run the offense. The commitment to the run is there and when we've needed to pass the football we've been productive there, too.
"I think as you're checking off things [Winston] is doing well it's, 'Check, check, check.' He's doing a lot of things the right way, not making the same mistakes over again. That's always an important thing. Some games we'll ask him to pass the ball a lot more, but each game we're going to ask him to make great decisions and he's doing that."
The Buccaneers take on the Giants on Sunday afternoon with kickoff scheduled for 4:05 p.m. ET. The game will be played at Raymond James Stadium and will be broadcast by FOX and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.
Projected starters for the Giants as listed on team depth chart.