The Buccaneers expect the Falcons to fight for every inch on Saturday in a game that has serious playoff implications for both teams
One might have to search the game archives for some time to find better evidence for the NFL's "any-given-Sunday" theorem than what the San Diego Chargers have done over the last two weekends.
On December 11, the loaded Chargers, feeling as if they might need to win their last four games to make the playoffs, lost at home to the 5-7 Miami Dolphins, who had seemingly conceded their season to rebuilding efforts two weeks before.
Seven days later, on December 18, the Chargers went on the road to the RCA Dome and made another Dolphins team – that undefeated and ubiquitous squad of '72 – even happier by defeating the previously-unbeaten Indianapolis Colts.
Drop a home game to an underdog one weekend, beat the Team of Destiny the next. Yep...on any given Sunday in the NFL, anybody can beat anybody. Often, it seems as if it all comes down to motivation. Common postgame quote after an upset win, like the one the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pulled off at Carolina two weekends ago: "I think we just wanted it more."
Cue the Atlanta Falcons arrival in Tampa.
The Falcons, at 8-6, are just one game behind the 9-5 Buccaneers, and they're tied with three other NFC teams fighting for the sixth spot in the current NFC playoff seedings. Atlanta is very much alive in the postseason race, but it could be a different story by Saturday night. If the Falcons lose in Raymond James Stadium, they'll be eliminated from the race.
A loss at Indianapolis would have effectively eliminated San Diego from the AFC race. Perhaps that's the reason the Chargers were able to dig deep down and pull out a win over a team that had cruised seemingly easily to 13-0. Will the Falcons be similarly motivated?
The Buccaneers are counting on it. But they are also putting themselves in the same boat.
"This is championship football," said defensive tackle Chris Hovan. "Their backs are against the wall, but we need to win this game, too. You can look at it from different angles. It is a must-win for both teams. So, it's going to be a great fight."
The Bucs can still win the NFC South with two wins and one Carolina loss, and that's a very significant goal. If two teams from the South qualify, there is a good chance that the Wild Card team will be playing at the division winner to open the playoffs. The Panthers could have salted away the division when the Bucs visited on December 11, but Tampa Bay responded in that must-win situation.
Atlanta will be primed to do the same thing, even coming off a loss at Chicago that wasn't all that different from the Bucs' defeat in New England. Actually, the Falcons have lost four of their last six, with wins only over 3-11 New Orleans and 4-10 Detroit, but from the Bucs' perspective that should only serve to make them hungrier for victory.
"We expect this whole football team to come in and give us their A game," said linebacker Derrick Brooks. "We expect nothing less from them. What happened to them the prior couple weeks don't mean anything to us. We're going to get their best shot."
In the round robin between the three teams that have won the NFC South in the last three years, the Bucs have had the upper hand on Atlanta, winning five of seven since the division was formed. The Falcons have generally handled the Panthers well, however, and Carolina has had great success against the Buccaneers.
But those patterns may be breaking down. The Panthers finally beat Vick in their sixth try three weeks ago, and the Bucs just broke their five-game losing streak to Carolina. Tampa Bay doesn't expect things to come easy against the Falcons, despite its recent success in the series.
"We're excited about the chance to get back home and play a game of this magnitude against a team like Atlanta," said wide receiver Joey Galloway. "We're looking forward to it. They'll come in and play tough. Their backs are against the wall, so we expect their best game."
Added quarterback Chris Simms: "It's going to be two angry teams coming in here on Saturday. I watched their game Sunday night. It was a cold game. Of course, playing against Chicago is tough right now; they are pretty hot. But we got our butts handed to us, too. We both realize what's at stake here. I expect both of our teams to put up a real good effort."
The Colts didn't roll over for San Diego, either. At times, Indy put up a very good effort. In the end, though, it was the cornered team that made the plays to win the game. The Bucs are determined not to let that happen in Tampa on Saturday.
"Being the fact that we have a state of mind and a certain level of concentration, a certain level of how we're trying to define ourselves this year, if we're responsible and we hold ourselves accountable to the greatness that we're trying to set forth for ourselves, we'll be okay," said defensive end Simeon Rice. "And a desperate team will just be a desperate team."
The depth of the Falcons' motivation wasn't the only topic being discussed by Buccaneer players during preparations for Saturday's first home game in a month. Here are a few more things we overheard in the locker room this week:
DT Chris Hovan on the rivalries in the NFC South: "Anytime you play a South team. With New Orleans, Carolina is a big game, and Atlanta. These are tough, tough, teams to play against in a division. These games count for two if you think about divisional games."
WR Ike Hilliard, a former New York Giant, on what this heated rivalry between Tampa and Atlanta compares to: "Giants-Eagles. I was in New York for eight years of my life. Giants-Eagles, or Giants-Cowboys."
DT Ellis Wyms on the series with Atlanta being emotional: "I think it always has been. It's a rivalry game. Any time we play against anybody in the NFC South, it seems like it's personal. It's not like it's going to play the Bears or the Buffalo Bills; when you're playing somebody in the South, everybody always gets up for the game. Both teams get up and they want to beat the other guy into submission. This game could be for the division, possibly. When you play these guys it's a little bit more personal, there's a little bit more of an edge to the game. You just know that going into the week and prepare for it during the week."
LB Derrick Brooks on if it has been difficult to keep emotions in check during the last couple weeks: "You go out there and play the game. Xs and Os. Control all of that. Play a disciplined game plan, go out there and create our plays and get turnovers."
WR Joey Galloway on getting a better start against this team: "We need a better everything. Start and finish. We got to play better, we know that. We did not play our best game last week, didn't play well at all. We know we have to improve starting today, and be ready for this weekend."
DE Simeon Rice on performing better defensively against the Falcons than they did last time: "We've just got to put a game together that's going to hallmark ourselves that we're going to carry out throughout the playoffs and throughout the rest of this year. We have to go out there and do the things that we need to do in terms of bringing the brilliance, stopping the run and getting after the passer. Let those things just kind of fall into our lap and evolve from our game."
DE Greg Spires on both the Bucs and Falcons coming off tough losses: "We definitely got our butts whipped last weekend. They're coming off a loss, too, so it's going to be a showdown and I'm just happy that we've got it here in Tampa."
T Anthony Davis on the offensive line's performance against New England: "You can't have that. We've just got to come out and play ball. We've got to get Cadillac [Williams] off the ground and we've got to give Chris [Simms] time to throw the ball. It always comes back on us, win or lose. And when we lose and things like that happen, it seems like you get on us before. But when we win, you don't even get that much credit; the stars get all the credit. But that's cool. That's the nature of the business. I'm not mad at all, but we just can't have games like that."
QB Chris Simms on how the offensive line responded after the Patriots game: "Everybody is out there trying to do their job. There is no point in trying to belittle anybody. We talked about it after the game, on the bus and on the plane a little, just things we know we could've done better. By the time we hit the ground down here in Tampa it's over and done with. We watched the film the next day, and I'm not worried about it anymore."
Brooks on if it is easy moving on from Saturday's game: "Yeah, it is. To be honest with you, [there is] nothing we can do about it. Typically, just learn from the mistakes. At the same time, give Atlanta our undivided attention."
Hilliard on if the shutout loss will stay with the team: "Well, we definitely hope not. We should have already put that behind us already. But things creep in through the course of the week. We're definitely going to have to have it in the back of our minds. I think if we would have gotten that win, we could have put a lot of pressure on some of the teams around the league. But, unfortunately we didn't get the win. So, now we are in a position where we face an old division rival. And they are coming into our place; we've got to defend our home field. It's a big game because of head-to-head, and we're trying to make a playoff run."
Simms on if the New England game is easier to get over than a close loss, like the Chicago game: "I don't think it's any easier. The Chicago game, everyone says it came down to the field goal. But the reality of it all is, you watch the film and even the score said 28-0 the other day, four or five plays, just a little different and that game could've been changed drastically. The roughing the punter, the punt return for a touchdown, just little things in the game that changed, I'm not saying we would've won, but I don't think the score is quite indicative of the kind of game it was."
Galloway on if the road games wore on the team: "I don't know about that. I think it would be easy to look back and say that now. But, I think we did a good job taking it one game at a time. We just didn't play well in the last one."
Simms on having a home game: "It's been awhile. It feels good. It will be good to just go out there and practice today, and not have to talk over five speakers. That's what I'm looking forward to."
Spires on if the Bucs are treating this game as if the playoffs have already started: "We've got to treat it like that to get in. Once you're in, anything can happen, but in order to get in you have to play playoff-type of ball just to get in. It would be easier if we had a bye into the playoffs, but we don't have that. The team that's going to be in a Wild Card situation has to fight to get in there."
C John Wade on if a division game is more about execution than doing anything new: "It will be for the most part. They might have a few new things to throw at us, defensively, or offensively for that matter. Even on special teams they could throw something in there at any time. It's a big division game. I would agree that it will probably be familiar on both sides, for us and them, but I'd say both sides will probably have a wrinkle or two thrown in the game plan to see how the other team adjusts. They might play front coverage. Then again, they might come up with some exotic blitzes that I've never dreamed of before. I think you just have to expect that in a December division game."
Simms on the pressure of having to win to keep pace with the Panthers: "They deserve it. There is nothing we can do about it. If we would've won last week, we would've put a lot of pressure on them. We know they have a tough opponent this week. They have Dallas this week and Atlanta the last week, so we are still alive. There is a lot of football to be played, so I'm not going to get into the scenarios."
Hilliard on how valuable each win is: "I just think in this league, it's all about how you finish. And once you get into the month of December, you have to find a way to win those games. If you are in the position to prepare for the playoffs, you have to have every win. But we're definitely taking this as a must-must situation. Those guys' backs are against the wall. We know what kind of effort those guys are going to bring Saturday, and overlap that energy and get a win."
Wade on knowing this year that they don't need help to get into the playoffs: "It's always a nice feeling to get to this point, but we have to finish. We have to go out here and complete what we've done to get to this point. We're definitely happy to be in a question where we control our own destiny, no question about that."
Brooks on if he thinks Michael Vick's confidence will still be high after last weekend's loss in Chicago: "We feel we're in the same position as they're in. We're trying to keep our hopes alive in terms of winning a division championship, getting in the playoffs, getting our 10th win of the season. There's a lot of motivation for us, so we can't really worry about the Falcons. Keep the focus and the issue about us, and at the same time respect who they are. We expect their best effort."
Wyms on Michael Vick: "Tough guy, tough competitor, one of the best athletes in the league, one of the best athletes this league has seen. Guys like that always bring out the best in this defense. We show up on Sunday and we know we've got a Pro Bowl quarterback – a perennial Pro Bowl guy probably for the rest of his career – and you want to play well, you want to show up and you want to make plays to stop a guy like that."
Rice on Michael Vick being heavily promoted for years: "As well he should be, as well he should be. You do so many things from the quarterback position. He defines his play with dynamic ability and performance. The performance doesn't always match the production, but it's always going to be a performance. That's what's more or less celebrated. That all being said, we still have to go out there and perform, too. We've still got stellar performance from the defensive side, but maybe that's not celebrated enough. We've been doing our thing for a long time, and we've got to continue to do it."
Wyms on the Falcons' offensive line: "They're big, athletic guys. They do a good job of blocking and knowing who they need to block. They don't do a whole lot, and when you don't do a whole lot you know what to do and who to block whatever front comes up. So they're big, smart and they know what they're doing, and we just have to go out and do what we do."
Wyms on Warrick Dunn having a Pro Bowl-type season: "That's Warrick. That's been Warrick ever since I've known him. He's always a great tailback, always a tough guy to stop. He's small, he's hard to find behind those O-linemen, but he runs hard and he runs a lot bigger than he really is. It's going to be a tough job to stop him but we think we can get it done."
Simms on if he expects Atlanta to change their defensive style: "I think it's just little subtleties (they will change:. Nobody is going to completely change their scheme. I just think they will go back, look at the film from our last meeting and just make adjustments where they think they need to make adjustments. Nothing major, but I'm sure they'll have a few new wrinkles, but again, I don't think it will be anything we haven't seen before, or nothing that should be hard for us to handle."
Simms on if he is doing anything differently now that he is in the home stretch of the season: "I'm just approaching it the same way. I really am. I think, maybe my background in college helps me here. Going to a school like the University of Texas, you learn that it's the playoffs every week. If you don't go undefeated, they are mad at you down there. That's just the way it is. That's the advantage you get going to big schools like Florida, Texas, Michigan, or wherever else. You are expected to win week in and week out."
Brooks on how he feels at this point of the season: "Right now my job is to lead this team. Lead this team down the stretch. These are big games. And usually a team that gets on a roll, 12, 13, ends up in the Super Bowl winning it. And we've got as good a chance as anybody."
QB Chris Simms on how he feels: "I feel good. I'm young and I'm resilient, so I got a little massage yesterday and that pushed some of the soreness out. It's a physical sport. You expect to get hit and be ready to go this next week. I'll be fresh by tomorrow."
CB Ronde Barber on if his sacks and tackles statistics helped him receive the Pro Bowl vote: "I'm sure a lot. I made it last year and I had three sacks and three interceptions. They are not gaudy numbers, but the consistency over the years, and obviously, the number of tackles, and the stats across the board, probably make it stand out for me more than anything. You talk about Pro Bowls, and I think reputation speaks a lot more than stats anyway. If you continue good play it will get you there year in and year out."
P Josh Bidwell on if it's hard for a punter to get noticed for Pro Bowl voting: "Maybe as a fan, it certainly is that. Fans probably vote more on just looking at stats, so it helped that I was on top pretty much the entire season. But player-wise, I know who the best punter is in the league, as a punter. I know when we play other punters and guys are in a groove. So I think the players will know who's doing well, because they're making a difference in the game. If we're playing a punter who's doing a good job and has a great game against us, we're aware of that and we're going to remember that. He'll get our vote."
Brooks on getting the Pro Bowl honor at the same time the Bucs are in the middle of a playoff race: "I thank God and I thank my teammates for helping me do it, but we also realize I want to be part of a bigger championship, and that's a Super Bowl ring. Again, that's where our focus is right now. Everybody said their congratulations and that was about it, because we know that the focus is Atlanta and giving them all the attention they deserve, and getting ourselves in a position to chase a Super Bowl championship."
Barber on Derrick Brooks being selected to his ninth consecutive Pro Bowl: "It's pretty impossible to believe. Again, his reputation and his play have never ceased and he is the life force of the defense. So [with] our defense playing as good as we are, he should go."
Bidwell on how this honor ranks in his career: "This is definitely the top of my career so far, to this point. I never really a couple years ago would have imagined this would happen. To see it come to fruition is a goal that I've had my sights on for a long time. I'm so excited."
Bidwell on if he appreciates the honor more having overcome cancer early in his career: "Oh yeah, definitely. I go through every day just thankful to be alive, thankful that I have a beautiful wife and a kid on the way. Career-wise, I'm just grateful to be back here. I didn't know if I'd lead a normal life, much less come back to the NFL. Something like this is just story book for me and I'm so grateful for it."
Brooks on if he thinks about Junior Seau getting 12 Pro Bowl selections: "Again, the things he did for this position are very respected. Obviously, he's one of the guys I looked at when I came in who set the standard for the position. If I could get anywhere close to what he was doing, that would be alright. Maybe the Lord has put me now in that position, to set the standard for the position. Again, it's a challenge every year and I look forward to going out there and doing the best I can to uphold it."
Hovan on Derrick Brooks: "It's a Hall-of-Famer, that's enough said. I am playing with a true to life Hall-of-Famer right now. It's a privilege."
Bidwell on what has been the difference in his kicking this year: "I just kind of think it's progression over the years. Every single year I've gotten better and better. Coming down to Florida and punting in good weather has helped out. It's kind of allowed me to hit a ball throughout the entire season that I usually would only hit in Green Bay for the first half of the year. I think that's a big factor right there. I just see it getting stronger every single season. I think committing in the offseason to get better and better has paid off."
Hovan on the Buccaneers organization: "They have a great head coach. Great assistant coaches who work around the clock. It's like each of them come in for a shift. You know it's like they show up, alright, it's your time to go home. So, these guys work diligent, very hard. I have the utmost respect for everybody here. That's why you see some of the assistant coaches from Tampa move on to other jobs. And carry that system and that mentality to other organizations."
Spires on if he remembers his favorite Christmas present from his childhood: "I'm thinking it was when I got my first bike. I jumped on it and rode it and fell about 20 times trying to learn how to ride it. When I learned, that's when I started exploring."