The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have handled adversity well in 2010, a fact that was evident once again on the 16th Sunday of the season. Failing to let a disappointing overtime loss to the Detroit Lions in Week 15 carry over into the next game, the Buccaneers put together their best all-around performance of the year and trampled the Seattle Seahawks, 38-15.
Now, in order to keep their playoff hopes alive into the late afternoon of the final weekend of the season, the Buccaneers need to do something they haven't done since mid-November: Win consecutive games.
The Seattle outing painted the Buccaneers as a team that could do some damage in the postseason, should they make it into the six-team NFC field. That's only possible with a 10th win on Sunday in New Orleans (plus some help in the four o'clock hour), and that is only possible with another full-team effort like the one last weekend.
"You can't let the last game linger, whether it's bad or whether it's good," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "This team has shown a great resiliency all year, bouncing back, and now we've got to find the ability to go out there and repeat performances. If we can repeat that type of performance and put them back to back like good teams do – like teams that win long-term do – we can be a pretty good team for a long time."
The Bucs have already served notice that their future is bright, storming to nine wins and late-season playoff contention, something few analysts expected. But there is something still at stake for 2010, and that's what the coaches and players are focusing on in Week 17. There's one more leg in the Race to 10, and one more chance to follow the four-pronged formula for success that Morris has been preaching all year.
"We've just to got to go out and play our game, like I've been talking about all year: fast, smart, hard and consistent," said the coach. "If we continue to do those things we can play with anybody. And if we can continue to perform like we did last week, it will be a good thing for us and our town."
The Bucs would certainly like to see QB Josh Freeman perform as well as he did a week ago, though five-touchdown games don't come along very often (his was just the third in franchise history, in fact). The Bucs can't really count on five more scoring passes from Freeman, but they might need him to keep pace with the Saints' Drew Brees if a shootout develops. Fortunately, the franchise now has a passer they can reasonably expect to do just that, and he only seems to be getting better.
"This is when you want to get better," said Morris. "It's down the stretch, at the end of the season, going into hopefully the playoffs and having him play his best football. Playing his best football game last week meant a lot to him and [validated] how he prepared, how he prepares every week. The things he is doing to get us better every week are awesome and we're looking forward to watching him grow and develop."
The Bucs are trying to avenge a 31-6 loss to the Saints in Week Six, and they are working on a repeat of last year's stunning upset in the Superdome in Week 16. In that latter game, the Buccaneers had to rally to send it to overtime, but they had kept the game in reach the entire way. That will likely be important on Sunday.
"It's tough to fall behind any team, but when you fall behind the Saints in particular, with all the weapons they have and all the things they can do to you, it can get scary," said Morris. "That last game [in 2010] was not a great one. Hopefully we can come out today and improve on that performance."
The Saints are certainly capable of hanging up a lot of points in a hurry. Before their last two games – a narrow loss at Baltimore and last week's big win in Atlanta – New Orleans had won five straight and scored at least 30 points in each outing. They will be without three of their offensive weapons today – WR Marques Colston, RB Pierre Thomas and TE Jeremy Shockey – but that hardly leaves Brees' cupboards bare. After all, he is the first passer in league history to complete at least 20 passes to 10 different players.
"You've got to talk about Reggie Bush and how dynamic he is, how physical their offensive line plays with [Carl] Nicks and some of those guys up there on the front," said Morris. "The defense is playing solid this year, if not great. They're not getting as many turnovers as they had last year but they're playing the run really well, they're blitzing all over the place. They're playing aggressively, playing really good football under Gregg Williams. This a really good football team that won a championship last year. We've got a great challenge ahead of us today.
And Morris expects his counterpart, Sean Payton, to play the game all-out, even if the Atlanta Falcons jump out to a quick lead on Carolina at the same time in the Georgia Dome.
"I think he'll go out to try to win the football game like he always does," said Morris. "He's going to try to win this football game today, I've got no doubt in my head about that, and we'll be out there trying to do the same thing. I look forward to seeing a great game today, and a really exciting one."
The Bucs will be without one of their top receivers, as well, with Sammie Stroughter missing a second consecutive game due to a hamstring strain. Stroughter had been expected to start in place of rookie wideout Arrelious Benn, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last Sunday. As Morris has said more than once, it's not particularly important who starts in place of Benn and Stroughter opposite the other starter, Mike Williams, because it will likely take contributions from all the remaining receivers to fill that void.
"We'll have more opportunities for Dezmon Briscoe and Maurice Stovall and some of those guys," said Morris. "Preston Parker will have a chance to step up. We'll see who's going to go out there and step up today and make the big plays for us that we've been getting from Rejus Benn."
The Bucs are also without starting fullback Earnest Graham, who sustained a neck injury last weekend. Rookie Erik Lorig will start in his place.
In addition to Graham and Stroughter, the Buccaneers have deactivated CB D.J. Johnson, T Will Barker, DE George Johnson, DT Doug Worthington, TE Nathan Overbay and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter.
The Saints' eight inactive players are Colston, Shockey, Thomas, S Usama Young, LB Anthony Waters, DL Anthony Hargrove, TE David Thomas and LB Kawika Mitchell. Waters, Hargrove and D. Thomas are also out due to injury.
The Bucs and Saints kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.