S Jermaine Phillips and the Bucs aren't using the
On the sliding scale of topics that NFL players are willing to discuss before a game, it ranks somewhere in the middle, a little south of perfectly acceptable. It's not exactly taboo, like looking forward to the following opponent, but neither is it a slam-dunk, like discussing how strong the opposing team is in every facet of its game.
It's the "must-win" concept. Try to label a game in this manner and you get player reactions ranging from crinkled noses to complete dismissal. Every now and then, you'll get at least a hint of agreement, though it's usually couched in terms of how important every game on the schedule is.
That, for instance, was the take of Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Jermaine Phillips this week, when he was unavoidably presented with the old "M-W" scenario.
"Definitely, I think every game is a must-win, especially now," said Phillips. "This is an NFC South game, so this is a big game for us. We're looking forward to going out there this Sunday and competing."
The problem players and coaches have with agreeing with the must-win label for any non-playoff or non-elimination game is this: If you say you must win a game to keep your season alive, and then you lose, what are you going to say next week? And what are you going to do, give up?
Of course not. Either the Buccaneers or the Carolina Panthers, Sunday's opponent, will be 0-3 after this game. That's a significant hole, one that will surely reduce the losing team's playoff chances. But is it really a must-win, any more than the next game on the schedule?
"No, we're not going to say that yet," said quarterback Chris Simms. "Carolina is a perfect example. The year before last, they started out [1-7] and ended up [7-9], and almost made the playoffs. They were maybe the hottest team in football. In this league, for a team that's hot, you can string wins together. But, we definitely want to win this week."
The operative phrase, Simms suggests, is "a sense of urgency." He says there is a big difference between heading into the bye week 1-2 or 0-3. The time off will be spent wisely either way, but it might be more invigorating if the team has a win to boost it into the bye. Simms' teammates agree, and it should be made clear that no one in the Bucs' locker room is downplaying how critical this Week Three contest is.
"It's very important," said running back Michael Pittman. "Going into our bye week, this is a big game for us, of course, and everybody knows that. We can't go into our bye week 0-3. We have to find what we can do to win this game. Facing a tough defense…we just faced a tough defense in Baltimore and in Atlanta last week, and it's not going to get any easier. This team is going to be very tough. Carolina needs to win a game, of course; if they don't, they will be 0-3. So it's a must-win for both of us."
Ah, there it is! Pittman candidly agreed to the "must-win" tag. What he is saying, however, is not that either team's season is truly over with a loss, but that each squad is likely to play the game with the emotional investment of a playoff contest.
"It's a little bit of everything, it's a lot of mixed emotions," added Phillips. "The morale is still high. We know it's still a long season, and we're going to get back to playing football the way Bucs play football."
So what is the reluctant final analysis on whether this game is a "must-win?" It goes back to what was said at the top: Yes, it is. But they all are.
"Every game is really a must-win situation," summarized center John Wade. "With us being 0-2, we definitely need it. They're 0-2 and feeling the same thing we are, so I expect nothing but a dogfight. We'll see if we can get a little more execution this week and get some points up on the board."
The "must-win" debate wasn't the only topic being discussed by Buccaneer players during preparations for the team's latest Carolina affair. Here are a few more things we overheard in the locker room this week:
T Anthony Davis on the rivalry between the Buccaneers and Panthers: "I've only played against them twice, and that was last year. I think everybody's a rival, to me. I just go out and play hard against everybody. This team here – they're a hell of a team, great defensive team, a great offensive team. At the end of the year, they're right there in the mix every year, so I think it's a great challenge for us."
S Jermaine Phillips on Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers: "This week right here both teams are 0-2. Everybody's battling for a victory, looking to turn their season around. This game right here is going to be very big, and it's an NFC South game as well, so there's a lot going into this game."
DE Simeon Rice on Sunday's game against Carolina: "I'm excited. This is a man's situation. This is why the great ones play this game and the players who we have who are dominant want to play in this game, to pull ourselves out of it. It's no time to look about what we had and what happened. It's about this game in a major way. It's a game for myself to come out and shine. That's all I want to talk about, that's all I'm interested in and that's the route I'm taking."
RB Michael Pittman on the importance of this week's game: "Critics are going to come out, talk about the head coach, talk about Chris Simms, and things like that. We have to do what we have to do as a team to win this game. Somebody needs to have a big kick return, myself, punt return, Mark Jones, interception return, Derrick Brooks or somebody on defense, or a big run on offense. So we have to do what we can to win this game."
QB Chris Simms on Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers: "I think you're going to have two very angry teams playing come Sunday. They're getting to the point where they're fed up with, I'm sure in their city, hearing about how they're struggling. We're the same way, so you're going to get two teams that are getting to that point where needing a win is pretty essential."
C John Wade on playing the Carolina Panthers: "It's always a dogfight. Up until last year, I don't know what it was but we hadn't beaten them since I'd been here – until the second time around last year. It's always a big game when we play each other. Any time you are playing your own division it's huge."
Davis on turning the season around: "I think if we can run the ball and get our running game started, that will take a lot of pressure off of Chris [Simms], and we can stay out there longer. That will keep our defense off the field. We've just got to get it started. We've just got to get back to techniques, fundamentals – things we did last year to make us a great running team. We've got to get back to that."
CB Juran Bolden on talk of the Buccaneers defense being in decline: "If people think this defense is slipping, that's for them to think. I know what we've got here, and guys here know what we've got. Whatever everybody wants to think, they can think, but I know we're going to be fine. You've got to look at a couple of years ago. Two years ago they went 5-11 and everybody was like 'the defense isn't the same.' Then the following year, to come back, we went 11-5. Everybody just relax a little bit and we're going to be alright. We're going to be fine."
Rice on the defensive performance the last two weeks: "That's in the past. It's the past. You can't go backwards. You've got to go forward. Looking in the past, we put things on tape that we are not necessarily proud of, but it's on there, it's history, it's a part of it. Now it's time to put good things on tape, and that's what we have to do this week."
Phillips on stopping Carolina's rushing attack: "We always pride ourselves on stopping the run. That's what we have to do first. That's what we're going to get back to this week."
CB Juran Bolden on why Atlanta was successful against the Bucs' defense last week: "They just did what they had to do, and we didn't. That's it. I'm not going to say what was what, but we just didn't finish the game."
Wade on what hurts more, not scoring or losing: "They're one in the same. Neither one hurts more or less. If we got in the end zone, we might not be in this situation. Neither one is good. We need to fix it."
Davis on the play of the offensive line: "It's early in the season, and we're working up steam. Up front, we've just got to gel. We're fine. Honestly, I think we're fine."
Wade on if he's surprised the offense can't get the ball into the end zone: "When you see the tape, it's not really shocking because there's always a reason. When it's going on, sometimes it can be kind of frustrating, why this didn't happen, why that didn't happen. That's done, and we have to be able to execute the next couple of weeks, especially this week obviously. We focus on this week. You can't live in the rear view mirror."
Davis on the lack of a running game: "We have no excuses. We've just got to play better up front. We can try to find excuses, but it's on us five up front. We worked hard in the offseason, we worked hard in camp and we're going to get it started. I think we're taking steps in the right direction, so we'll be fine."
Davis on if the film reveals guys making mistakes, using the wrong techniques: "I just watch what's up front. We've just got to come off the ball. Better protection, better footwork, better technique – getting back to the fundamentals. Trying to get this running back on track – that's what we need to do. It's going to be a great challenge for us, measuring up against a d-line like that. We're just going to come out and do what we do."
WR Ike Hilliard on why Cadillac Williams has not gotten going: "That's not for me to evaluate. I just think that the two defenses that we played have played us well and haven't allowed us an opportunity to get our running game going. We can all pick up our play better to help the guy out and get him going."
Pittman on how good it is for a running back to get more carries: "The best way to get into a game is to get more and more carries. As a running back in college, when I played, you get 20 or more carries a game, the game comes easier to you. You're relaxed, you get hit, you get more confident, you get up. As the game goes on, as a running back, the more carries that you have, you just feel more confident as the game goes on. You just get in motion. You feel like, not unstoppable, but you just feel great. The game comes to you. You're not trying to force things. So with a running back, that's great when you get more and more carries as the game goes on."
Wade on playing this past Sunday with the entire offensive line from last season: "I can't speak for the whole group, but when you play beside somebody for a whole year, you obviously know what their tendencies are, our knowledge of the system together, seeing things together. It's one thing to sit in a meeting room, see it together. It's another thing to play and see it all at full speed, which that lineup last week had seen from previous years. It's nice as far as communication and knowing each other."
Davis on the improved pass protection against the Atlanta Falcons: "Us up front, we don't look for any glory for that because that's what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to take care of Chris [Simms] like that. We don't look for any glory. We just want to add our running game to that so we can be one the great teams in this league."
Simms on the team going to more five and seven-step drops against Atlanta: "The five and seven-step drops we were protecting pretty well. They weren't blitzing a whole lot. I think Coach [Gruden] realized they're playing deep zones, and we're going to have to get some guys down the field if we want to be aggressive in the passing game, and we did a pretty good job of it, we really did. Take away a few mistakes, here and there, that game could have been a lot different. It was nice to push the rock down the field a little bit."
Simms on if defenses are scheming differently than in the past: "I don't know. I think we have seen a few more wrinkles maybe in our run game. As far as what defenses are doing, overall I don't think it's anything too tricky. It's just that we have played two good defensive football teams and they've outplayed us. I think that's really the big problem."
Simms on the support of his teammates: "My teammates have been great. Too nice. Just casually telling me things have been going good. 'Hey, just keep your head up,' all the usual sayings. And I really do appreciate that. But at the same time I'm going to be mad at myself until I play a good game. That's just the way it's going to be. And then I will completely let it go."
WR Ike Hilliard on the success he and Simms had last year against Carolina: "We had a few conversions, I don't want to say it was just me and Chris [Simms] having success, and then we ran the ball well. Hopefully, I'll be in his back pocket when he needs me. That's the kind of trust that we've got to continue to work on, and hopefully we can keep that going in some sense. We've got to get our offense going first, our running game, passing game as a whole. We'll figure it out."
Simms on WR Ike Hilliard: "He is like another quarterback on the field. I think that's the best way to describe it. He's completely aware of down and distance, the situation of the game and what a defense is trying to do. He's a tremendous help to me out there. He's always pointing out guys if they are blitzing. And he's just real, what you could call, quarterback friendly. He does a great job of reading defenses, especially zone defenses. He kind of finds that hole and makes himself available."
Phillips on Panthers' wide receiver Steve Smith: "Steve Smith is a great receiver. He's number one last year in receptions and yards as well. He's a big-play man for them. When you have him on the field, it adds another dimension - somebody else you have to game plan for. Without him, you see they've been struggling. We're going to prepare like he's going to play. We know he's a competitor, so we know if he can be out there, he's going to be out there."
Rice on seeing former teammate Keyshawn Johnson, now with the Panthers: "That's my man, I've got love for Key. But like I said, we've got to come out this week and do the things necessary for us to get a victory, and that's all that's important. I've got love for Keyshawn."