Tony Dungy watched the Bucs' division title hopes slip away in Chicago, but he still believes the Bucs can reach their ultimate goal
The field is shaping up for the NFL playoffs, which are scheduled to begin on January 12 with the first day of Wild Card games.
For those teams that aren't mentioned above, however, the playoffs basically begin this week. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in that group.
All the Bucs want is an opportunity to dance in the playoffs, where every game is win-or-you're-out. To get there, they basically must treat the next three games in the same manner. Since Tampa Bay will only make the postseason field as a Wild Card team, that means they most likely will have to win six straight games to make it to their first Super Bowl.
"We're down to that do-or-die part of the year where it is kind of like the playoffs, where you can't afford to lose," said Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy on Monday. "You have to practice that way and play that way."
That could be a tough task considering the lopsided nature of their loss at Chicago this weekend.
"We just have to come back together and regroup," said Dungy. "We have three tough games left. The biggest one is the first one, this week. We're going to have to play much better to win that ballgame and see if we can get on another streak."
The position the Bucs find themselves in is, in effect, a merging of the inevitable desire to look ahead and the common coach's order to 'take it one game at a time.' That's because, when you look at Tampa Bay's trio of remaining games, Sunday's contest against the New Orleans Saints is clearly the most crucial of the three.
"I think it (is)," Dungy agreed. "Obviously, the team that wins it will have the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage and put the other team in a situation where you're just hoping for somebody else to help you. That's the way that we've got to look at it, that we've got to win this ballgame and put ourselves in position where we don't need any help."
New Orleans will either be 8-5 or 7-6 after Monday' night's game against the Rams, set to face the 7-6 Buccaneers next Sunday. Assuming the worst-case scenario, from the Bucs' point of view, that the Saints are 8-5, a victory by Tampa Bay would put both teams at 8-6 and give the Bucs a head-to-head tie-breaker advantage. That would mean Tampa Bay could guarantee itself a playoff spot by winning the next two, while the Saints would have to hope for help from Baltimore or Philadelphia, the Bucs' final two opponents.
"We really feel like we can get in the playoffs and we've got to win," said Dungy. "So, from that standpoint, this is going to be a big, big game. Last week, we felt like we could still win the division and it was a big game going up there. We wanted to not let Chicago sweep us, give us a chance on some tiebreakers, but we didn't get it done.
"We were definitely trying to win the division, still felt like we had a chance to win it. Now that goal is out of reach and our sights have to be on the playoffs, and to get in the playoffs, this is going to be a 'must-win' for us."
Buccaneer players and coaches are to be commended if they can truly focus on one game at a time over these next three weeks. Observers of the team, however, want to know if they still have a Super Bowl contender on their hands. That was the general assessment of the Buccaneers before the season began, but 7-6 is a precarious position to be in for a team with Super Bowl dreams.
On Monday, Dungy was asked if his team was still a contender for the Lombardi Trophy.
"I think we are, if St. Louis is capable of winning it," he answered. "On a one-day situation, we beat them, and I think they have the best record or second-best record in football. But we have not played consistently enough to go through and win five or six games in a row like we're going to have to do.
"Now, can that be done? Washington goes from 0-5 to winning five straight. I don't think a lot of people saw any light in Washington's tunnel when they were 0-5. But it's just a matter of getting that urgency where everything's important, where you get it done, where you're healthy enough. A lot of things have to fall in place, and we'll find out. Starting next week, we'll see what we're made of."
Late-season runs in each of the last three seasons indicate the Bucs are made of hearty stock. Now a largely veteran team, it's reasonable to say the Bucs know how to respond when the highest form of pressure is on them.
"I think we have that ability," said Dungy. "That's going to be our challenge for the next three weeks. We're playing three teams that are in the playoff hunt, if not in the playoffs already. It's a tough slate. We're playing them at home and we're playing them in a situation where we have to win. If that doesn't motivate us then nothing will."