LB Derrick Brooks, who has been through more than one stretch run, thinks this year's NFC South race is going down to the final week
For the next two weeks, the NFC South is closing its doors to all outsiders, turning the deadbolts and fighting things out like one big, dysfunctional family.
While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are battling the New Orleans Saints in Baton Rouge this Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers will be renewing their rivalry in Charlotte. The next weekend, everybody will change dance partners as the Bucs head to Charlotte and the Saints go to Atlanta.
After that, the South, which rivals the NFC East and AFC West for pure top-to-bottom competitiveness this year, will either be a picture of clarity or – and this is distinctly possible – an even bigger mess.
Headed into this fortnight, the Panthers have the edge at 8-3 and the Bucs and Falcons are right behind at 7-4 each. The Saints are just 3-8, but they've beaten Carolina, taken Atlanta to the brink in mid-November and always played Tampa Bay tough. Historically – well, at least regarding four years of NFC South history – the Bucs have trouble with the Panthers, the Panthers struggle with the Falcons and the Falcons have a hard time with the Bucs.
In other words, anyone who says he knows how the division is going to shake out is either blindly confident or purposely ignoring history.
In addition to the next two weekends of all intra-South play, Carolina plays New Orleans in Week 15; Atlanta and Tampa Bay finish their series in Week 16; and Week 17 will be a reverse of this weekend's games, with the Saints coming to Tampa and Panthers heading to Atlanta.
"It's going to go down, in my opinion, until the last week of the season," said Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks. "For us, I've got to echo what Coach Mora said in Atlanta, everybody's still sitting in the driver's seat in terms of the playoffs. That's a good thing. We don't have to depend on anybody for the postseason run. Obviously, December football gets that playoff fever going. It's going to be a couple of teams on the run to make their way to Detroit."
Detroit, of course, is the site of Super Bowl XL, which means, for once, teams want to spend early February there. The scrum that is the NFC South may be an internal affair for the next month, but it should be of great interest to the rest of the conference as well. Since the NFL realigned into its eight-division format in 2002, the South has been a part of every NFC Championship Game and two of the three Super Bowls.
The Bucs were the first of those Super Bowl teams from the South, winning XXXVII at the end of the 2002 season. They followed with two sub-.500 campaigns, though, so they are pleased to be back in the thick of it this December.
"Everybody's ready to play right now," said quarterback Chris Simms. "I think everybody's excited to know we've got a chance to do some good things. We've just got to make a good final push here in the month of December."
The Bucs are no strangers to December pushes. Their record in the season's final month (including a couple early-January games) over the last seven years is 19-13, and it was 19-9 before last year's 0-4 limp to the finish. The last five Buccaneer playoff teams (including the 1997 squad) have gone 19-8 in regular season games after the start of December.
This one is a little different, though, given the thick intra-division play in the final weeks. In 2002, for instance, the Bucs went 3-2 over their last five, but the last three games were all out of the division. The 2000 team, then a member of the NFC Central, won three of four in December but all three of its victories came outside of the division.
The most analogous recent year was 1999. The Bucs had four division foes in the Central back then, and they played all four of them in the final five weeks of the season. Home wins over Minnesota, Detroit and Green Bay set the Bucs up at 10-5 and a 20-6 victory at Chicago in the season finale bought the team a first-round bye.
Of course, that kind of information is just for you and I. Buccaneer players and coaches are not particularly interested in the historical significance of an unrelated season, and they are taking great pains not to look down the schedule at future games.
"We're just trying to win another game," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "I don't want to get ahead of myself. We've got to play a much better football game than we played last week overall to beat New Orleans. New Orleans is a talented team. I don't get into all that stuff. In my mind, I'm going to keep it real short-term goal-oriented, take one at a time and don't worry about the other guys."
The NFC South's exciting endgame wasn't the only topic being discussed by Buccaneer players during preparations for Sunday's game in Baton Rouge. Here are a few more things we overheard in the locker room this week:
TE Anthony Becht on what the Saints have gone through since Hurricane Katrina: "I can't really speak on what that might be like. It's definitely been a change for them. It's been tumultuous, where they are going to be, where they are playing next year, their families, where they live. It's a lot of things that they have to think about on a week-to-week, day-to-day basis. A lot of players aren't really having to deal with that stuff. It's definitely an attribute to them what they have been able to do in the situation they have been in."
DT Anthony McFarland on if he can imagine what the Saints have been through: "No, I can't. And obviously, we wish those circumstances wouldn't have happened. But at the same time, you have to play the game. The commissioner and all the powers that be, they've figured out a way to go ahead and get this done so this season could be played for the Saints. Eventually, it's got to be frustrating, but it definitely tests a team's mental toughness. I think it starts at the top, and they've done a good job of getting their guys mentally ready to play. They just have to go out on the field and play, the same way with us."
QB Chris Simms on if he can imagine going through what the Saints have had to go through this season due to Hurricane Katrina: "I cannot imagine. That's extremely rough, just thinking about it, let alone being a part of it. I've talked to Dwight a few times throughout the season and he told me it's tough. One week they're in San Antonio, the next week they're in Baton Rouge. They were out in California there for awhile. I would think it would be hard to relax because you don't really have a home to go to every night and just sit down on the couch and let your thoughts disappear. I would figure that would be the toughest thing; having to go back to a hotel room or something like that night after night would get on your nerves."
DE Greg Spires on if he can imagine what the Saints have been through this year: "They're going through a lot, but imagine what the families who are there are going through, the people who lost their homes for real. Those guys are going through hard times, but there are a lot of other people going through tough times."
CB Brian Kelly on if he can imagine what the Saints have gone through: "It's a tough situation and it's a credit to them, it's a credit to the coaches to keep them focused throughout the year. When you look at the tape, they're still playing hard. There's not a lot of let-down in these guys right now. They're still playing hard and that shows they have a lot of fight in them."
C John Wade on the Saints' situation: "They've definitely been through a lot, but I watched a little of them last night and they're playing very hard and they have a lot of talent. It's another week for us. It doesn't make any difference what their record is or what their situation is. They're coming out to play and we just have to prepare for them just like we would any other team. And it's a divisional opponent, so they're going to be fired up and ready for us."
LB Derrick Brooks on playing a game on a college campus: "We can't let all those outside distractions keep us from worrying about football. It's going to be a hundred-yard football field and we're going to be facing New Orleans. That's pretty much all we can control. That was the focus back when we played Chicago at the University of Illinois, and this is the same thing. We don't care where we've got to play them – it's a game that's got to be played and we can't let any of those things distract us."
WR Michael Clayton on if he expects a mixed crowd reaction at Tiger Stadium: "I don't have any enemies in Louisiana right now. Louisiana fans have always been supportive of me. Like I said, I'm a native of Baton Rouge and I've always supported my community. I think those guys always welcome me with open arms. This is a time when you get to settle down. You get to see your family. I haven't really had a chance to see my whole family since the season started. Everybody's coming out to this game."
Kelly on what kind of atmosphere he expects in Tiger Stadium: "I don't know. I've heard LSU's in a championship game. I don't know. I don't know what it's going to be. This is just going to be a focus game for us. It's all about us. We've got to link up together as a team, step out onto the field as a team and take care of business."
McFarland on altering his memories of playing in Tiger Stadium: "No, those memories are still there. I'm not changing anything. What's done is done. You can't change history. History's already been done. I'm going back as a Buccaneer, we're trying to get our eighth win and that's what we're looking forward to doing."
Simms on playing in a college stadium this weekend: "It's going to be very different, unlike anything we've gone through, at least since I've been here in the pros. I'm sure the stadium won't be sold out, so that will be a change, as far as going on the road. But we've just got to rise the challenge and not let any of those side factors creep into our minds. Just stay focused on the Saints. Yeah, it is strange. You're going to Baton Rouge, playing on LSU's field against the Saints. I don't even know what hotel we're staying at. But, again, you just let the week play out, not worry about that and hopefully just play a good game on Sunday."
Brooks on playing three straight road games: "Well, we're [not] going to have to play all three of them this week. You know we've got to play the one. As far as we're concerned, it's just taking that approach. That's just New Orleans and Baton Rouge and that's what our focus is on. We'll move on from there Monday, go to the next destination, but we can't play them all this week. We've had three road games in December before. Obviously we'll keep focus as usual, one game at a time."
Simms on playing three straight road games in December: "It's a big challenge against three tough opponents. The Saints – of course their record might not be what you'd expect it to be but they've got a lot of talent on their team and, like we were saying, they've had to overcome a lot of adversity this year. They'll be at home in Baton Rouge, so we expect their best shot. The weeks after that, we know we've got to be ready. Carolina, New England – those are two teams with a lot of pride. On their home fields, you'd better be ready."
Wade on if the Bucs have ever played three straight road games in December: "I don't know if they have or not, but in my mind we're playing the Saints this week and taking it one week at a time. The schedule, home and away, is not an issue in our minds."
Brooks on if the Buccaneers were shocked at the loss to Chicago: "Well, we were obviously disappointed because we wanted to win. Our effort was there to win, but we didn't make enough plays to win."
Spires on if it's easy to put a tough loss behind them: "Yeah, it is easy. You've got to swallow it and move on. We're motivated to play New Orleans this week, put that last game behind us and get a win this week."
K Matt Bryant on how you get over something like Sunday, when he missed the potential game-tying kick: "You had to put it over right after that kick because there was still an opportunity of stopping them and getting another chance to go out there and kick. So, I mean, it's done. Now it's to the point, there's two things that have to happen; one, you can't dwell on what I could have changed at that moment. Right now I've got to focus on getting back out there, on the saddle, so to speak."
Brooks on if the Buccaneers have gotten over the loss to Chicago: "Yes, if we had won, we would have gotten over the win by now. Our focus is New Orleans. We do what we have to do and hopefully we'll meet Chicago again."
Kelly on if it is helping the team to bond to have so many close games go down to the wire: "Yeah, it is. It's a good time for us to get together and guys to really focus in and know how important this time of year is."
Wade on having comeback success with a young quarterback: "It's great. I love it. I don't know the stats on it, but I think Chris is doing a tremendous job. I think he's really got a lot of confidence, a lot more than where he started. He's not overconfident by any means, but I think he feels good running the system. And I feel confident in him as an offensive lineman, what he's doing in the system."
Simms on what his coaches have told him to help him in late-game situations: "I would say the one thing [Quarterbacks] Coach [Paul] Hackett's beaten into my brain pretty much since the summertime was the one-play-at-a-time approach. Don't worry about that last play, whether it was good or bad. Just move on to the next one. Which is easier said and done. You've just got to live in the now, as they say. That's a big part of being a quarterback."
Wade on what Simms is like in the huddle in crunch time: "The same. Even keel. No ups and downs. He just plays. He's calling them out and we're going out there expecting to execute. Every quarterback's different, but somebody said one time, 'Never get too high, never get too low.' I think that would probably be good for anybody at any position."
Becht on the Bucs' growing offensive success: "Any time you can play in a game, and it's a tight one, and you are able to answer what the opposing offense has done, it's definitely a good sign. We're just going to go out there and do the best we can."
Simms on the Saints' secondary: "The Saints' secondary is very aggressive and extremely talented. They will test you. They're going to test your wide receivers as far as man-to-man coverage goes. [Mike] McKenzie over there at left corner is about as good as they get when it comes to man-to-man defense. We talked about Dwight Smith who, in my opinion, is definitely one of the best safeties in the NFL. They're going to give you some chances to take some shots down the field but I think they know that, too. They're aggressive and yet they do a good job of disguising some coverages."
Simms on if practicing against the Bucs' secondary helps prepare for a challenge like that: "Yeah, it definitely does. Even our scout team guys, the James Patricks that we get to play against every day, Blue Adams, they do a great job for us, as far as giving us the looks we want. It's key in games like this because we practice most of the year against our defense and they play a lot more zone than maybe some other teams, so it's good that we get some good scout-team looks."
Kelly on the Saints being able to move the ball: "Yeah, they can. They've got a lot of weapons on offense. They're moving the ball; they're running the ball well; Aaron Brooks is playing well right now; they've got a great group of receivers. They definitely are moving the ball up and down the field."
Brooks on what he's noticed about the Saints: "Obviously, the strength of their offense. Aaron Brooks and the receiving corps, Joe Horn and Donte' [Stallworth], they're doing a good job at that and they've had some plays on us in the past, but there's a different offensive coordinator this year. Donte' Stallworth has come on this past month, while Joe has been hurting and established himself as the number two guy. Aaron, my good friend, Stecker, who's doing a very good job along with Antowain Smith. Right now the Saints are good. They're moving the ball on everybody, the whole season. Even the games that they lost, they've obviously established a good offensive tempo. It's a big challenge for us defensively."
Kelly on Aaron Brooks being able to get hot: "You've got to respect him. You know he's got an ability to get hot and you've got to expect that he's going to be hot because he's got it in him. He's got a big arm, a strong arm. He's fearless. He feels he can fit any ball into any situation and that makes him dangerous, plus the fact that he can run. He still can run around and he makes a lot of plays."
Kelly on if Brooks' style of play can also be good for the Bucs' defense: "It's an opportunity for us to get our hands on the ball and make some plays as well."
Becht on if it's a challenge for him to block defensive ends: "No. It's a tall order but it's something that I can do. I mean, obviously you always want to be perfect. Whenever something happens, it definitely [shows up]. I just go out there and work hard and get it done the following week. I take a lot of pride in the way I play and that's definitely an area I work on every week and try to get better at it. And I will."
K Todd France on what he has been doing this fall: "I was in Philadelphia for about five weeks. I got to finally get in some games there. I got to spend Thanksgiving and most of November with my family, so that was nice. I've just been working out and staying ready."
Bryant on if his injury feels better every day: "Is it getting better? Yeah. 100 percent cured over the last two days? No, [but] better and better each day."
Clayton on if an offseason slowed by surgery has been part of his struggles: "A small part. I was out for four or five months. I missed the whole offseason and that can affect any player in the NFL because that is one of the most crucial situations that a player needs to be in. That's when we get game-ready. To miss that, especially coming off surgery, it's not easy to bounce back from. A lot of guys take a year. But I put in the work. I didn't miss any practices at training camp and I'm doing all I can, still doing all I can."
Simms on how a quarterback determines when he loses faith in a receiver: "I don't know. I've never really lost faith in my career in a receiver. I was at Texas with a lot of good receivers. As quarterback, you don't really think like that. You just try to throw to the open guys. It's hard enough being a quarterback and finding open receivers, let alone dropping back and seeing a guy and going, 'Oh, I lost faith in him, I can't throw to him.' You just play your game and you throw to the open man. You don't lose faith. If guys are dropping a few balls, that stuff's going to happen. You just move on. You realize they're trying their hardest and sometimes thinks don't work out that way."
Wade on how different it feels to be in the thick of the playoff race as opposed to the end of last season: "Well, my year was done personally so I don't want to speak for everybody else's feelings on last year. But this year we're very much in it and we just need to go out there and play well. It's on us to go out there and execute and get the wins."