A year ago, after the ninth week of the 2009 NFL season, there were 12 teams in the league that had compiled records of 5-3 or better.
Nine of those 12 teams went on to make the playoffs; three did not. One, the San Diego Chargers, won every one of their last eight contests and ended up at 13-3 and with a first-round bye. Another, the Denver Broncos, won only two more times in the second half, limping in at .500 and missing the postseason. Cincinnati played .500 ball down the stretch but still won its division; Atlanta did the same but missed out on a Wild Card by one game.
Why rehash all of that when the eventual results for those 12 teams were all over the map? Because it's now 2010 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 5-3 at their midway point, and it's simply wonderful that this season still has so many possibilities left in it. All of those potential endings remain on the board for the Buccaneers. Last year, a Tampa Bay team that was clearly in transition won just one of its first eight games, and it wasn't hard to figure out the team's playoff chances at that point.
Thus, at the same time the Buccaneers are smarting over a potential comeback win that got away in Atlanta on Sunday, they understand that there are still many critical battles to be fought over the next two months. And they relish that opportunity.
"You're 5-3 and you were in a meaningful game yesterday versus the Atlanta Falcons," summarized Head Coach Raheem Morris, who has led his team back into playoff contention in his second season at the helm. "That's where everybody in the National Football League wants to be right now – you want to be in meaningful games. And we'll have more meaningful games coming up. When you're at the midway point and you're still playing meaningful games instead of worrying about draft status, you're feeling much better about where you are, what you're trying to do and how you want to improve your team each week."
The strong Buccaneer teams of the late '90s and early '00s were often chided for their "ugly wins," usually because the defense was leading the way. Similarly, this upstart 2010 crew is told it lacks in "quality wins," but that losing in Atlanta was actually something of a "moral victory." Not surprisingly, there was a different opinion inside the walls of the old One Buccaneer Place a decade ago, and the same is true in the halls of new One Buc now. No one in Tampa Bay's locker room felt vindicated or pleased after Sunday's loss, but no one felt any less confident about the upcoming playoff stretch run, either.
Did the close outcome in the Georgia Dome prove that the Bucs are real contenders? Perhaps it affected outside perception, but the 53 players on Tampa Bay's roster had already believed before Sunday's game anyway. They simply wanted the win, and now they'll try to take what gains they can out of the loss.
"There are no consolations, unfortunately," said Morris. "There are no moral victories. There are lessons to be learned from every game, and that's just one of the lessons. It's just something you can use for your football team in the future. We'll grow from this loss."
Halfway through their schedule, the Buccaneers find themselves just one game behind the teams with the shared best record in the NFL (6-2 Atlanta, Baltimore, New England, Pittsburgh and the New York Giants and Jets). Had they been able to finish off their final drive on Sunday instead of stalling at the Falcons' two, and had they then held off Matt Ryan's comeback attempt over the last two minutes, the Bucs would have been in first place in the ultra-competitive NFC South.
Of course, had Josh Freeman not found Cadillac Williams in the end zone on a do-or-die fourth down against St. Louis in Week Seven, or had Aqib Talib not picked off Arizona's Derek Anderson at the Bucs' six-yard line in Week Nine, some of those Ws in the Bucs' ledger could have been Ls, too. But the Bucs did lose in Atlanta and they did earn five wins in their first seven outings and they are 5-3 at the midway point. As Morris said without hesitation last year at 1-7 and as he says again now, 'You are what your record says you are.'
And that means the Buccaneers are contenders, and moreover, they're believers. No, Sunday's game in Atlanta wasn't a moral victory, or a victory of any kind, but it was another opportunity for the NFL's youngest team to take on a serious challenge, and they didn't hesitate to do so.
"The toughness, the resilience, how hard they played…," said Morris, ticking off what he liked about his team's effort on Sunday. "We go down 14-0 and Freeman's looking at me like, 'Just give me the ball back, I'll fix it.' You look at your receivers and they can't wait to make a play. It's just the mojo with our team and how close-knit we all are. I think that's a part of why we can come back and why we can be in every single game. We went out yesterday as a team and fought our way back in. It's a never-say-die, never-quit, no-nonsense type of mentality when we're in those situations, and it's great.
"It's been a different person every single week [to make the big play]. Spurlock's made a couple of them. We've seen Mike Williams make a big one. Arrelious Benn's starting to come on and make some big ones for us. LeGarrette Blount last week versus Arizona made a big-time play. And Free has been the consistent one in all of that."
The Carolina Panthers come to town next, and the Bucs will be looking to sweep that season series for the first time since 2002. Given the right combinations of outcomes in Atlanta on Thursday and at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, the Buccaneers could be back in a first-place tie before the week is over (New Orleans would be joining that party, also at 6-3 but idle in Week 10).
Soon, Atlanta will be coming to Tampa for a potentially critical rematch. The Bucs will head to New Orleans in the season's final weekend; how much meaning will that game have? Trips to Baltimore and Washington loom large. If you've got a Buccaneers calendar and a red pen, you're circling dates left and right, something you didn't need to do a year ago. The 2010 Buccaneers have possibilities.
"Tough game [in Atlanta], but a very good game, a meaningful game," said Morris. "At the halfway point of the season, that's where you want to be. We took a young football team into a hostile environment and there were some positive things, some negative things, some things we can still get better. I still believe we're learning lessons every weekend. Yesterday there were most lessons for us to learn, to get better at, to clean up and be a better football team next week."