Tony Dungy's famous poker face should come in handy during next Sunday's card game with the Eagles
On Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles followed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' lead and locked up their playoff position. That, in effect, turned next Sunday's Bucs-Eagles match into one big card game.
This isn't Vegas stakes, though. It's penny-ante.
Neither Tampa Bay nor Philadelphia has any thing to gain, in terms of the playoffs, by winning next Sunday night's regular-season finale. Win or lose, the Bucs will be the sixth seed in the NFC field and the Eagles will own the third seed as the NFC East Champions. On the weekend of January 12-13, the Buccaneers will visit Veterans Stadium for a reprise of last year's playoff opener.
The NFL doesn't have any provisions for skipping straight to the money round, so the Bucs and Eagles will play a practice hand on Sunday in Tampa before their playoff game a week later. They just won't be showing their cards.
"That will be something that both teams will be well aware of," said Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy. "Somehow you want to go out and win the game. You want to play well, you want to establish that you can beat the other guys, but you don't want to do it at all costs and reveal what you might really be thinking for the next week."
That being said, Dungy still believes there is plenty to play for.
"We're going to play to win," he insisted. "We want that to get that 10th win and we want to keep our momentum going. We're not going to treat this as if we don't want to win the game. I think it's important to keep playing well, keep winning and keep doing things right."
In this case, that is probably more than just lip service.
The Bucs were in danger of flubbing away their postseason hopes just three weeks ago and, even at 7-6, they had failed to get in any kind of rhythm all season. Now, after back-to-back outstanding efforts against New Orleans and Baltimore, the Bucs finally look like a true Super Bowl contender. If the team is to create any havoc out of its lowly playoff seed, it needs to hit the postseason running.
"We still have some goals that we'd like to accomplish," Dungy reiterated. "We'd like to get our 10th win, we'd like to keep our home winning streak going. Certainly, the playoffs are the most important thing, so you're probably not going to play people that are banged up, but our healthy guys will play and it's a game we want to win. We'll see what happens in the late game and see where it leads, but right now that's our thought process, to keep our momentum going and play well."
The Bucs have already qualified for the postseason more times in the last five seasons (four) than they had in their first 21 (three). They hit double digits in victories three times from 1997-2000 after doing so only once from 1976-1996. Going there again wouldn't help their playoff status in 2001, but the players see meaning in that accomplishment anyway, according to Dungy.
"That is something I think a lot of our guys are zeroed in on," he asserted. "It would be a sense of accomplishment for us to do that three years in a row. Playing at home, I think our guys have a lot of pride in playing at home. We certainly want to win the ballgame."
None of which is to say the Bucs are going to ignore the reality of the situation. The stakes are low, and unlike a friendly poker game, that means the teams are going to be less likely to take risks, particularly with slightly injured players.
"We won't take chances with guys," Dungy conceded. "If guys get banged up, we probably would be hesitant to put them back in. Martin (Gramatica) for instance, if he's feeling anything at all we won't kick him. If he's 100 percent we will.
"I think it will help us in terms of guys that are a little bit banged up. We won't feel the urgency to have to practice them. We won't have to play guys that aren't a hundred percent.
"We'll be more cautious, but you can't go in (thinking), 'Hey, we can't play anybody because they might get hurt.'"
Well, actually, you could if you were determined to protect every starter from injury. That approach, according to Dungy, is not only overly cautious but potentially counterproductive. Does a week off before the playoffs make you well-rested or well-rusted?
"You play to get in the habit of doing things right, getting that momentum to get that good feeling, and to keeps guys sharp," said Dungy.
"We'll go in trying to win and I think it's important for us to win."