DE Simeon Rice thinks the energy of Saturday's game will be at a whole new level
It's December, and here come the Falcons again.
It's become a bit of a late-season tradition, Atlanta flying south to Tampa during the stretch run. Since the NFC South was formed during the NFL's 2002 realignment, the Buccaneers' schedule has featured a December visit from Atlanta every year.
The first three games were significant. In 2002, the Bucs had to beat Atlanta and the red-hot Michael Vick to hang on to first place in the new division, which they did quite handily, 34-10. In 2003, the Bucs were barely clinging to their playoff lives when the Falcons, having just got Vick back from injury, came into Raymond James Stadium and ended the dream with a 30-28 victory. And last year it was the Falcons who were steaming towards the South title only to have the Bucs rise up to provide a 27-0 pasting, which proved to be only a bump in the road for Atlanta.
This fourth December meeting should top them all, however. Both teams are in the running for a playoff spot, and it's a good bet that only one of the two, at most, will get in. In fact, with the right combination of other outcomes, a Buccaneer victory could both clinch a spot for Tampa Bay and completely eliminate the Falcons.
Of course, all of that lead-in is just so much icing on the cake for the players on these two teams. To paraphrase Renee Zellweger, "You had me at 'Here come the Falcons.'"
In other words, at least in terms of the emotions that will be on display Saturday in Raymond James, these two teams could put on a playoff-type show any month of the season.
"It's a rivalry game," said defensive tackle Ellis Wyms. "Any time we play against anybody in the NFC South, it seems like it's personal. It's not like it's 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. When you play these guys it's a little bit more personal, there's a little bit more of an edge to the game."
The last game, won 30-27 by the Bucs in Atlanta, featured some personal fouls early in the game and a spirited Tampa Bay comeback at the end. It was late November, so both teams were already starting to think about the playoff hunt. The visiting Buccaneers made enough plays at the beginning and the end of the game to win, but Atlanta played a very energetic and impressive game, too. Vick was masterful on third down and the Falcons rang up 443 yards of offense, by far the most allowed by Tampa Bay this season.
Both teams probably left the field still feeling as if they were the better squad, and still not liking the other side very much. There are sure to lingering feelings, not just from that Buccaneer win but from the entire emotional series since the two teams became NFC South mates.
"This is what it comes to," said defensive end Simeon Rice, whose sack fumble in the end zone led to the Bucs' first touchdown in that game. "It comes to a head, and what better team than a team that we faced already and we've got a certain level of confidence on. But I don't think this game is going to be an ample showing of what the first game was like, because it's going to go up a whole 'nother level. This is going to take us to a whole new magnitude. The energy is going to be playoff atmosphere.
Actually, it's almost literally a playoff game. Though neither team needs any added motivation for this contest, there is also no escaping what is at stake. The Falcons, at 8-6 to the Bucs' 9-5, are in a somewhat more dire situation, but the Bucs know they'll be in the same fix if they let Atlanta take that advantage away. Players and coaches don't like to use the phrase, but they will be approaching this game like a "must-win."
"We've got to treat it like that to get in," said defensive end Greg Spires. "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."