Head Coach Jon Gruden is not yet concerning himself with the NFC playoff scenario
It was a nice weekend for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Every team they wanted to win did so.
That would be exactly one team.
The Buccaneers kept their playoff hopes alive and even gained some ground on their Wild Card competitors with a 35-3 win over San Francisco on Sunday. That outcome was their only concern, and the team's single-minded focus showed in its most complete effort of the season.
Oh, sure, there was probably some scoreboard watching on the sideline, and that's a necessary pursuit in the press box, but Head Coach Jon Gruden wants his team's concentration squarely on their own performance. Playoff scenarios will become clearer in December, but there will be no race in Tampa if the Bucs don't win their own games.
"I don't really think we're competing with anybody else but ourselves," said Gruden, the morning after his team improved to 4-6 with its fourth win in the last six contests. "We've just got to win some games. The more you concentrate on the standings, the more you look at other teams and their schedules and how they're going to do, the more complex it gets. We just have to take care of business. If we can win a game on Sunday and get to 5-6, we can stay alive and do well in this race."
(Shhh. Okay, let's discuss it just a little bit. By improving to 4-6, the Bucs remained two games back of the NFC Wild Card leader – whoever doesn't win the NFC North out of the 6-4 Packers and Vikings – and one game behind the next two teams in the Wild Card race – the 5-5 Rams and Giants. The Bucs are still two games behind St. Louis in effect, however, as they lost to the Rams. Four teams fell back into a tie with the Bucs at 4-6 with losses on Sunday: Arizona, Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans. Two teams dropped behind the Bucs at 3-7: Dallas and Washington. The Bucs have beaten Chicago and New Orleans, lost to Washington and won't play Detroit, Dallas, Green Bay or Minnesota. Arizona is Tampa Bay's final regular season opponent.
Gruden is right, it is quite complex at this point, and we haven't even discussed NFC records and other tiebreakers.)
For now, all the Bucs need to know is that the next game is the most important one of the season. Should they win at Carolina on Sunday, the same thing will be true the following weekend. For all the Buccaneers know at this point, they might have to win all of their last six games to stay alive in the race.
"You have to have a goal to get in the playoffs," Gruden conceded. "If you can't get in the Super Bowl tournament, you don't have a chance to win it. But again, we just try to concentrate on our team. We had a terrible start, four straight losses. It's a credit to our coaches, our fans and our players for putting ourselves in position to make a last-second run at this, but there are no guarantees. We have to play great on Sunday because Carolina is still a good football team."
Fortunately, the Bucs are feeling confident after Sunday's big win. Other than Brian Griese's two interceptions, virtually everything that happened on the field Sunday looked good to Gruden, particularly in the first half. In fact, Gruden believes those 30 minutes of play, in which the Bucs built a 21-0 lead and a 239-26 edge in total yardage, represented the best half of football the team has played since his arrival in 2002.
Maintaining that effort, even as injuries force the team to shuffle the lineup on almost a weekly basis, is the key. What happens on the out-of-town scoreboard is out of the Bucs' control.
"I think we have a good football team," said Gruden. "We're playing a lot of guys. I think the return of Joe] Jurevicius and the addition of [Joey] Galloway gives us a couple [additional threats on offense. We'll see what happens. We feel like we're making strides on offense. It's a credit to our defense; yesterday they were dominant. Special teams, Martin [Gramatica] kicked the ball well and the coverage was good.
"I am very optimistic we can go on a roll based on how hard we play."
As always, Gruden started his Monday morning briefing with a run-down of the team's injuries from the previous day's game. In a welcome change, it was the quickest part of the press conference.
"I don't have a lot of injuries to report here," Gruden began, leaving unsaid the qualifier, 'for a change.' In discussing the team's overall injury situation, however, Gruden did refer to Head Trainer Todd Toriscelli as a very busy man. While the Bucs reported just two new injuries from the 49er game, there are some longer-term issues to keep an eye on.
The fresh aches belonged to center Sean Mahan, who sustained a left shoulder stinger, and cornerback Mario Edwards, who has strained rib cartilage. Both players may miss Wednesday's practice, but Gruden expects Mahan to be probable and Edwards to be questionable when the first official injury report comes out that morning.
If Edwards can't play, or is active but limited, Torrie Cox would see increased playing time in the nickel package. Cox, the team's primary kickoff returner, has already started to take some defensive snaps in the last few weeks, and has performed well. Obviously, his 55-yard interception return for the game's last touchdown on Sunday was his highlight so far.
Cox was originally a sixth-round draft pick out of Pittsburgh in 2003, but he missed his rookie season due to torn knee ligaments. He got onto the active list this season by emerging as a kick-return threat, but his future as a defender also looks bright.
"He had a real serious season-ending injury in Miami in the last preseason," said Gruden. "It's really a credit to him and Todd Toriscelli for [Cox] to come back as fast as he did and as well as he did. The guy makes plays on our practice field, he makes plays in the kicking game, and he's going to make more plays. He's a good football player and he'll see more playing time because of that."
The two defensive starters missing from Sunday's game – free safety Jermaine Phillips and defensive tackle Anthony McFarland – have both undergone surgery for their injuries, a fractured right forearm and a right triceps tear, respectively. Though he hasn't officially been placed on injured reserve yet, McFarland's season is over. Phillips, however, could return before season's end and thus the Bucs will not move him to IR.
"We'll keep our fingers crossed and see how the injury goes here in the next week to ten days," said Gruden. "I believe there is a chance he could come back after a period of weeks. And if there is a chance we'll hold the right to keep him on our roster."
Wide receiver Joey Galloway, who missed most of the season's first half after tearing a groin muscle in the opener at Washington, has worked his way back into the lineup the last three weeks and on Sunday had several key receptions. However, his injury will probably not heal until after the season, which means the Bucs will be looking into his status each week.
Gruden is just thankful that Galloway has come back as well as he has.
"I think it's something that's going to linger with him all year," said Gruden of the groin injury. "This is a guy that fires me up. He changes the game. A couple of patterns that we did get, intermediate throws yesterday, I mean he's flushing coverage. He just changes the game up the field. He gets down the field in a hurry. People know where he is. When you see him at 100 percent, Buccaneer fans, I think you'll see what I see. This guy is fast as hell. It's just unfortunate this is going to linger on, I think, throughout the season."