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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Out of the Cold

The Bucs’ last NFC Central game might be the kind of bad-weather playoff tune up they won’t often get in the new NFC South

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DE Marcus Jones and the Buccaneers likely won't get as many cold December games after moving to the NFC South

Think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are dreading their first real cold-weather game of the season this Sunday in Chicago? You might want to ask the half-dozen Bucs who experienced severe dehydration last Sunday in the heat of Raymond James Stadium.

Who knows? They might just prefer parkas to IVs.

The current forecast for December 16 in Chicago calls for spotty showers and highs in the mid-40s. That sounds potentially messy, if not quite Ice Bowl material. The Bucs could ride the mercury from one end of the thermometer to the other after playing in unusually sweltering weather in Tampa on December 9.

"We are going to anticipate bad weather, and anticipate the fact that we have to go up there and run the ball and play good run-defense," said Dungy. "Then we'll have to see how the game unfolds."

And, if that mercury hovers below 40 degrees at noon Central time on Sunday, when the Bucs and Bears kick off, the game will instantly become part of the 'list that wouldn't die.'

Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy insists that his team has no particular fear of, or disadvantage in, cold weather, but the Bucs can't escape the fact that the franchise has never won a game in which the kickoff temperature was below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. They've had 20 chances, including three last year.

That doesn't mean the Buccaneers would cancel this trip to the Windy City if they could. It's a very real possibility that a low playoff seed could take the Bucs to such tropical climes as Philadelphia, Green Bay or even Chicago again. If so, Sunday's game in Soldier Field will be an excellent chance to acclimatize the team to the severe conditions that could lie ahead, conditions that include not just the weather but the hostile crowds.

"I never really thought the weather matters," said Dungy. "I think you take them all as they come. We've played in St. Louis and Cincinnati…playing in Chicago is going to be good for us. I'm sure we're going to have to go on the road at some point, the way our record is now. More than the weather is that hostile environment – the noise, the grass fields up north. I think that is good for us."

That's an opportunity that will come far less frequently when the Bucs move into the NFC South next season.

The last NFC Central intra-division game ever for the Buccaneers, Sunday's contest in Soldier Field marks the fifth straight year that Tampa Bay has played in either Chicago or Green Bay after Thanksgiving, and the sixth time in the last seven years. Northern trips won't be impossible in the coming seasons, but the Bucs will more likely find themselves inside a dome in Atlanta or New Orleans or in the relatively pleasant Charlotte winter.

That would mean no teeth-chattering tune up for the Bucs, who could use the cold to clear their heads, in a way.

"Cold weather and conditions are really mental," said Dungy. "It's not being in the weather or practicing in it. It's the mindset that you have, and knowing you have to get the job done."

Much of that list was built before Dungy's arrival, of course, and the Bucs lost in just about every condition during the '80s and the early '90s. In recent seasons, it has begun to look more like a 'curse' than ineptitude, as potential streak-breakers have slipped away.

In Soldier Field last season, the Bucs, who had beaten the Bears 41-0 earlier that season, extended their streak of consecutive quarters without allowing an offensive touchdown to Chicago to 18. However, an interception returned for a touchdown and a rare Warrick Dunn fumble in the fourth quarter led to a 13-10 Chicago victory. It was 37 degrees at kickoff that November 19th.

Later that same season, in a 15-degree game that ranked as the second coldest in Bucs history, Tampa Bay lined up for a game-winning 40-yard field goal at the end of regulation only to see their Pro Bowl kicker, Martin Gramatica, miss it just right.

Two years prior to that, Tampa Bay pounded Cincinnati, 35-0, on a cold day in Ohio. The kickoff temperature that day? Exactly 40 degrees, one degree too many to end the streak.

In Chicago in 1997, the Bucs and Bears played to a virtual statistical draw, but Michael Husted missed two field goals and Tampa Bay lost, 13-7, on November 23 in 29-degree conditions. A week further into winter, on the 23rd, the Bucs pulled it back together in New York and beat the Giants handily, 20-8, but the thermometer soared to 46 degrees that day.

The same could happen at Soldier Field this weekend, but the Bucs will get a cold reception from the Chicago crowd either way. How they handle themselves in that environment could say a lot about their eventual playoff fortunes.

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