Sunday's game might as well be the playoffs for the Buccaneers, and that suits DE Greg Spires just fine
Greg Spires, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' stalwart end, will be making his first career start at defensive tackle on Sunday. Searching for the right mix up front, the Bucs hope to get a big game from their new man in the middle.
They need not worry. Spires always seems to raise his game for the playoffs and – make no mistake – Sunday's visit from the New Orleans Saints is a playoff game for the Buccaneers.
The 2004 NFL postseason will not officially start until January 8, and the Bucs may or not be in the field. But they definitely will not be one of the six surviving NFC teams if they don't beat the Saints on Sunday. Thus, every game has survival on the line, just like the postseason.
"That's the truth," said Spires, who was an MVP candidate in Super Bowl XXXVII with his all-around play. "We are in the last three games and if we don't win these last three games, we are out of the playoffs, so basically every game is a playoff game.
"Usually I play well in playoff games, but we just have to take this one game at a time and find a way to get this one."
An 0-4 start to the season has put the Bucs on the edge of the race all season, but losses at Carolina and San Diego in the last three weeks have removed all of the team's margin for error. Hope remains, however, and that's a rather remarkable situation for a 5-8 team to be in.
"We definitely want to win out and if that happens, that is great," said tackle Derrick Deese. "Right now, we are not in control of that. Last week, we were in control of that. That was an opportunity that slipped by; now we have to depend on other things to happen. We are going to do our part and whatever happens, happens."
Quarterback Brian Griese said he would have prepared for Sunday's game with just as much focus and intensity if the Bucs had already been eliminated from the playoffs, and he believes his teammates would have done the same. Still, the knowledge that hope remains gives the team some added incentive. Now it's just a matter of responding to that incentive.
"We still have a chance, like it or not," Griese conceded. "It has been a crazy year. We have been talking about that for three weeks. I think we need to quit talking about that and start talking about what we can do ourselves and what we can control, not what everyone else is doing."
Since the overall scenario that would put the Bucs in the playoffs is not too far out there – the main ingredients include a Carolina loss at Atlanta on Saturday and two St. Louis losses in the last three weeks – the players can still feel a certain measure of control. Win the final three games and there's a reasonable chance the prize will be waiting for them.
"Everybody wants to get into the tournament," said tackle Kenyatta Walker. "What we have to do right now is take care of what we can control and just play it on Sunday, and everything will take care of itself."
The playoff picture was only one topic being discussed in the locker room this week. Below are some additional thoughts from Tampa Bay players and coaches on a variety of subjects.
Head Coach Jon Gruden on New Orleans playing better recently: "Boy, I tell you, the last two games…I don't care what people say. You watch the film and they played well enough to win in Atlanta. If it's not for Mike Vick pulling the rabbit out of the hat, they've got a chance to win there. They were completely, in my opinion, a very good team against Dallas. They played great defense. I think Vinny [Testaverde] was 14 for 35 or 36. They did a good job against the run. And Aaron Brooks made some plays through the air. They look good. I think they're playing hard. They've got a talented nucleus of players and they're playing hard."
LB Derrick Brooks on knowing New Orleans is going to play hard: "That is typical Saints football. They have always tried to come out and establish Deuce McAllister. That makes Aaron Brooks a more effective passer. Our goals will remain the same; stop Deuce McAllister, take away the running game, make them one dimensional, get some pressure on Aaron Brooks and make some plays in the passing game."
QB Brian Griese on what stands out about his last game against the Saints: "I think there are a lot of things that I can do better as far as decision making and moving the team; the leadership aspects of playing quarterback. There are a lot of things that I am going to continue to work on, not only the rest of this week and the rest of the season, but in my career as well."
Griese on what he will take from his success during the New Orleans game: "They played really well last week and they played really well against us when we were down there. We won by three points. It was a close game. I expect their best shot on Sunday and we're going to have to be on top of our game."
S Dwight Smith on what he anticipates from the Saints: "A lot of them running Deuce McAllister. Until we really blow up and stop the run, that is what we can expect from here on out. We gave up a chunk of yardage to LT [LaDainian Tomlinson] last week and I know they are really going to watch that film and try to come in and do the same thing. That's what we really need to gear ourselves for, them running the ball."
Brooks on how frustrating it is that other teams have been able to run against the Buccaneers: "It is one of these deals, if we stop the run, we know we win and we take away big plays. We look at it as it correlates to our wins. Some games, teams have rushed for big yards and we have won. Some teams have rushed for a few yards and we have won."
T Kenyatta Walker on winning at home: "It means a lot. In this league, wins are very hard to come by. We're playing another division team and there's a lot at stake. Any time you play guys like New Orleans, there's a lot of pride in it. We've just got to go out there and play ball and take care of what we can. That's the plan on Sunday."
Griese on this being the Bucs' first chance to sweep New Orleans: "I didn't know that. I am new here too, so I am just taking it week by week, but we need to have this game, there's no doubt about it. Whether it is a sweep or not, they are going to come in there in the same situation we are. They came off a big win last week, so they have some momentum. We have some momentum from winning our last four games at home, so we feel confident and I am sure they do as well."
DE Greg Spires on the possibility of sweeping the Saints: "That would be nice because I know the year we won the Super Bowl they swept us. It would be nice to sweep them."
Brooks on whether this is as big a rival as the other teams in the division: "Sure is. Anytime the four of us play each other, it is a big game. We don't need any fanfare, any notoriety, we just need to go out there and win. We win these three games here, then we'll see what happens."
WR Michael Clayton on if he has kept level-headed about his success: "I'm always level-headed. It's an honor to break records and do all that stuff. The thing that keeps me going is staying positive. No matter what happens, you always want to stay positive and prepare yourself for the next challenge. I'm a guy who's always looking for a new challenge. What's next? If you stay positive, you're able to handle anything that comes your way. With the guys that I have on this team with the experience that they have and the opportunities that they give me and teach me stuff, I'm always with open arms, willing to learn. Those guys know that, and just having that attitude makes me take that next step to being successful."
Clayton on if the Bucs' record changes his positive feelings about his season: "No. I've got a lot of time in this league. You're not going to have a winning season every year. It's good to go through things. At LSU, we had one bad season. And we had two great seasons. I know how to deal with losses and I know how to deal with success. It's just something that you have to use for a learning experience. At one point in your career you're going to have to deal with it, no matter who you play for. I just think you stay positive and learn from it."
Clayton on if he's surpassed what even he thought he would accomplish: "No. My self-expectations are a whole lot higher than anybody's expectations of myself. I haven't reached my goal yet. I have a lot of work to do in this league; I have a lot to learn. I just use every game, every practice as a learning experience and try to get better. I don't know how long Tim Brown will be in this league, but everything that he has to offer me I take it in and use it as a positive any way I can. I just try to succeed my self-expectations, and if I do that I think everybody's happy."
WR Joey Galloway on whether there are any lingering effects of his injury Sunday against the Chargers: "No. I will be fine. Just cramped up at the end. This week I will be more prepared. Usually I would get an IV at halftime, but I was thinking I was fine out there because it was a little cooler, but I won't let it happen again."
Griese on this being the time of year when guys are auditioning and whether he feels like he is in that position: "No. I haven't thought about it. Especially after a game like last week where we had a lot of guys who fought really hard and we weren't rewarded. You're week to week and you want to go out and perform well and win and get that great feeling for the guys in the locker room. I know I am not thinking about anything but this game and I hope nobody else is."
Gruden on what he likes about Brian Griese: "Every aspect of his play. I know he's thrown a couple interceptions, but I think in the last six or seven games we're averaging 25 points a game. That's with seven or eight missed field goals and three turnovers inside the 10-yard line that he didn't have anything to do with. He's doing some great things: His accuracy, his arm strength. He throws the ball down the field extremely well. He's got functional movement. Smart as hell; I mean, really a smart, heady player. And I think he's got some leadership that our team has responded to."
Gruden on Chris Simms: "Simms is not done here in terms of his career just because Brian has become a starter. Chris is going to get an opportunity once again at some point, and it's his job, his mission to be ready."
Gruden on RB Ian Smart's future: "It's up to him. He's got to play well. He's got to earn every snap he gets. He's been out there five or six snaps offensively. He's seen the ball a few times and done well. He's getting better, he's learning. He's like everybody else – it's America, it's the land of opportunity. Take advantage of your chances, and if you're meant to stick around you will. If you're not, you won't. I think he understands that. But I give him a lot of credit: He's a hardworking kid and he's got talent."
Gruden on teams needing more wins to make the playoffs in the AFC: "That's the way it goes. I've been on teams where 9-7 isn't nearly good enough. Things go in cycles. Some of these guys who cut albums for a living go three, four, five years without having a good one, then all of a sudden they put something out that's really exciting."
Walker on whether the Saints blitz a lot: "I think they will; you never know. We're 13, 14 weeks into the season, so they're definitely going to have a couple things to beat some of our coverages."
Griese on how he feels about the colder weather in Tampa: "I woke up this morning and felt like I was back in Denver. It was cold, but it takes me back to my days in Michigan where the ball is really hard when it gets cold and it is hard to throw it, but I like those kind of games. I don't know what the weather is going to be like on Sunday, but whatever comes I will be ready for it."
TE Ken Dilger on what it means to still be in the playoff hunt: "It feels good being 5-8 and still having a chance, but I think the only team we have to worry about is ourselves and what we do on offense. We haven't really executed so well in certain situations, so hopefully when it is time to execute we can go ahead and do it."
Smith on what motivates the team: "Wins. Trying to get wins. We still have a chance to end the season at .500 without a losing record. That should be a motivation tool in itself to the guys. You don't really want to be on the team that has had back-to-back losing years, so hopefully we can put that in our memory bank and try to push towards getting to 8-8."
Walker on trying to finish at .500: "A win is always good. We've definitely got to go out there and fight, and it's another big game because it's a division."
Galloway on whether he sees new life in the team: "I think there is a feeling that we know how we can play. We know what we are trying to do at times, although it doesn't always work out. We know how to be successful, eliminate mistakes and put an entire game together."
DE Simeon Rice on why the team is in this position for the second year in a row: "A lot of different reasons. You have to look within yourself. From an outside perspective looking in, I don't know. I am still in the struggle, so I don't know where it is going, but hopefully, it will all make sense in the end someway, somehow."
Smith on whether he wants to stay in Tampa: "Of course. This is the franchise that gave me my first opportunity to play in the NFL, gave me a shot. We won the Super Bowl. I have a house here. This is where I live. I would love to be here, but we all know that can't always happen, so you have to move on if that is what happens."
DE Chidi Ahanotu on if he feels he'll be back in Tampa next year: "I have no idea. That's a decision that the powers that be have to make. Everyone knows how much I love Tampa and how much I love this community, and that's where my heart is. But you can't worry about things you can't control. You can only express your feelings, and hopefully those feelings get addressed."