Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Pending Itinerary

Questions will be answered with the upcoming NFL schedule release, which is expected to occur before the draft

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The last quarterback to throw a pass for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a Monday Night Football game at Raymond James Stadium was Brad Johnson.

Johnson actually threw 32 passes on the evening of Monday, November 24, 2003, completing 22 of them for 269 yards, one touchdown and one interception while leading his Buccaneers to a 19-13 win over the visiting New York Giants.  That was one of three Monday night games played that season by the NFL's defending champs, two of them at home.

The Buccaneers made single appearances on the MNF schedule in 2004, 2006 and 2008, but all on the road.  Perhaps the rise of another standout quarterback, rising star Josh Freeman, will finally lure the long-running prime-time series back to Tampa.

We'll know soon enough.

The NFL is expected to announce its full 2011 regular-season schedule at some point before the upcoming draft, which kicks off with Round One on Thursday, April 28.  The league already unveiled its 2011 preseason slate on Tuesday, whetting the appetites of fans eager to know where and when their teams would be kicking off the games that count.

The upcoming schedule release will answer many questions for Buccaneers fans, including whether or not their team has been favored by Monday Night Football again.  Here are five things we will soon learn about the 2011 season:

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1. Back to prime time?

Last spring, the Buccaneers were handed a 2010 schedule with very few twists and turns.  Though late-season "flex scheduling" and the team's winning ways allowed several Tampa Bay contests to gain wider national audiences, the original 16-game slate featured 16 straight Sunday games, all of them kicking off on or around 1:00 p.m. ET.  The Buccaneers also had no prime-time games on their schedule in 2009.

Given their 10-6 record in 2010 and a bevy of young up-and-comers like Freeman, however, it's reasonable to think that an appearance or two on Sunday or Monday night is in the offing this fall.  The Buccaneers have won 10 or more games in six different seasons in franchise history, and in each case they were chosen for a Monday night game the following campaign.

In 2009, 10 teams finished with a regular-season record of 10-6 or better, and all 10 made at least one appearance on Monday Night Football the following year.  In fact, five more teams finished at 9-7 and all five made the MNF slate, and of the five 8-8 teams, only one (Carolina) was not a Monday night choice in 2010.

The Buccaneers have played 17 Monday Night Football games in their history, compiling an 8-9 record overall.  From 1998 – the first season after their 1997 breakout campaign – through 2004, Tampa Bay played in 12 MNF games and won five of them.  That golden era of Monday night games for the Bucs was highlighted by the 38-35 shootout win over the St. Louis Rams in December of 2000.

The Bucs have also played 17 Sunday Night Football games in their history, posting a 6-11 mark in those prime-time contests.  The most recent was in 2008, a 20-10 win over the visiting Seattle Seahawks on October 19.  That is Tampa Bay's only scheduled Sunday-nighter of the past six years; prior to that, the Bucs had played at least one Sunday night game every season for 15 years with the exception of 2000.

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2. Where will it all begin?

The Buccaneers have drawn a home game in Week One each of the past two years, against Dallas in 2009 and Cleveland in 2010.  Can they make it three in a row?

It wouldn't be the first time.  From 1986-88, Tampa Bay enjoyed three straight season-openers at home, playing host to San Francisco, Atlanta and Philadelphia, in that order.  That is, however, the only team in team history that has occurred.  On the other hand, the team has had two different streaks of three straight openers on the road, most recently from 2003-05 (Philadelphia, Washington and Minnesota).

Overall, even with the last two openers at Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs would seem to be "due" a few more.  In 35 years, they have been sent out on the road for their opener on 19 occasions and been given a home game 16 times.  Five of their last eight Game Ones have been on the road, and seven of their last 11.

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3. Division dealings – early or late?

Since joining the new NFC South in 2002, the Bucs have basically alternated between one sort of schedule that dived straight into South play and another that largely back-loaded the intra-division games.

In 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2008, for instance, the Buccaneers played two division games in the first quarter of the season.  In 2004, 2005 and 2009, on the other hand, the team headed into its 11th game having only faced two South opponents.  In 2005, four of the Bucs' last five games were against division foes; in 2009, five of the last seven were against the South.

The 2010 season, however, might have been the most balanced one the Bucs have played, between games in and out of the division, since the South was formed.  Tampa Bay's intra-division games were numbers, two, five, eight, nine, 12 and 16 on the list.

At least one of those numbers is likely to stay the same in 2011, as the NFL purposely saved an intra-division matchup for each team for the final weekend of the season last year.  That experiment was well-received as the league tried to up the chances that all of their season-ending games would be relevant.  The plan is expected to be part of the 2011 scheduling process, too.

Even before that new initiative, the Bucs are used to finishing the regular season against a division foe.  Four of their last six seasons have ended in that way – vs. New Orleans in 2005; vs. Carolina in 2007; vs. Atlanta in 2009; and at New Orleans last winter.

On the other hand, they've only opened with an NFC South opponent twice, and just once since that first season in 2002.  Tampa Bay's Super Bowl-winning season actually began with a loss at home to the New Orleans Saints.  In 2008, the Saints once again gave the Buccaneers a season-opening defeat, this time in the Superdome.

Do the Bucs have a preference as to where their division games fall?  Probably not.  However, the most back-loaded division schedule the team has had in its South tenure, in 2005, worked out extremely well.  Though Carolina led the division for much of the year, the Bucs won five straight intra-division matchups between games 10 and 16 and ended up with the South title.

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4. Time to go bye?

There is no perfect time for a bye week, at least not when the schedule comes out in the spring.  A week off can help a team at any point in the season if it happens to be dealing with a large number of injuries at the time.

Of course, it's also logical that a team is more likely to have mounting injuries later in the season, after more games have been played.  Obviously, too, there is likely to be more general fatigue on a team's roster after nine games than after three.

For this reason, later bye weeks are usually greeted more favorably when the schedule comes out in April.  The NFL schedules each team for one weekend off between Weeks Four and 10 on its schedule.

The Bucs got the earliest possible bye week last year, so it is unlikely they will be in the same position in 2011.  On the other hand, Tampa Bay brass can hardly complain about its recent history as it relates to the bye.  Since the league realignment in 2002, the Buccaneers have drawn a bye of Week Seven or later in six of the nine seasons.  Three times – 2002, 2007 and 2008 – the Bucs drew a bye in Week Nine or 10.

Strangely, it seems to be one extreme or another for the Buccaneers.  In the other three seasons not included above – 2003, 2006 and 2010 – Tampa Bay got the earliest possible bye.  Perhaps 2011 will mark the first time the Bucs have been given Week Five or Six off.

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5. Tough travels?

In 1991, the Buccaneers opened with a road game against the New York Jets and then returned home for a home game against the Chicago Bears in Week Two.  For the rest of the season, Tampa Bay followed the same pattern – away, home, away, home.  There were no back-to-back road or home games on the itinerary, just a perfectly alternating schedule between the two.

That's an obvious way to arrange a team's schedule, but it's also very rare.  That's the only time that's happened in the Buccaneers' 35-season history, for instance.  None of the league's 32 teams were given a perfectly alternating schedule in 2010, either.

In other words, there is almost sure to be some back-to-back home and road segments in the Buccaneers' 2011 schedule.  The question is, will there be any notably tough stretches away from home for a team that tied a franchise record by winning six of eight road games last year?

In 2010, for instance, the Buccaneers played four road games in a five-week stretch, a run that included such difficult destinations as Atlanta and Baltimore plus long, taxing trips to Phoenix and San Fran.  There was a similar grouping late in the 2009 season – a five-week stretch from late November to late December that included jaunts to Atlanta, Carolina, Seattle and New Orleans (the last two resulting in big wins).

The Bucs have been able to avoid the unenviable three-road-games-in-a-row assignment for the last five years.  The last such occurrence for Tampa Bay was late in 2005, when a tight NFC South race included the challenge of consecutive December trips to New Orleans, Carolina and New England.  The Bucs won the first two of those games and, eventually, the division.

Fortunately, such three-game road swings don't seem to be nearly as common as they used to be, at least for the Buccaneers.  From 1978, the year the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule, through 1996, the Buccaneers were handed eight different three-game road streaks.  That's pretty close to one every other year.  In contrast, the aforementioned December arrangement in 2005 is the only three-game road swing Tampa Bay has been sent on since 1997.

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