LB Derrick Brooks says the Buccaneers would like to make the Falcons wait to win the South elsewhere
At one point, not long ago, Raymond James Stadium was one of the last places in the league an opposing team wanted to visit. While it might not have had the historical weight of a Lambeau Field or a Mile High Stadium, its primary occupants enjoyed an edge on par with the Packers and Broncos and just about any other team with a decided home field advantage.
Raymond James Stadium got loud and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fed off of it to the tune of a 30-10 record in the first five years (1998-2002) after its gates opened.
Then, suddenly, the Bucs lost their home field magic in 2003. Oh, the place could still get quite loud, but now the noise was more of an eerie backdrop for what turned into one of those crazy-house shacks at a carnival, where everything is distorted by mirrors and tilting floors.
It wasn't just that the Bucs went 3-5 at home – probably the deciding factor in the team missing the playoffs at 7-9. It was the bizarre manner of the losses. There was the epic comeback by Indy on Monday night, in which the Bucs lost a three-touchdown lead in the last four minutes. It was the game-winning extra point getting blocked against Carolina. It was six turnovers in a three-point loss to the Saints. It was their own massive comeback against the Falcons, from 30-7 to 30-28, falling short when a good-looking two-point conversion try was batted down at the line of scrimmage.
The Bucs found ever new ways to lose at Raymond James, where before they could do almost nothing but win. And the 2004 season started out in a similar manner, with closes losses to Denver and Seattle. Against the Seahawks, for instance, a fumbled snap at the one-yard line cost the Bucs a potential four points in a 10-6 loss.
Beginning with the Chicago Bears' visit in October, however, Raymond James has begun to feel like home sweet home to the Buccaneers again. Tampa Bay has won three straight on its home turf and has looked very sharp in all three. It won a shootout with the high-powered Chiefs after the Chicago game, then completely dominated San Francisco in a 35-3 win two weekends ago.
Those three wins have allowed the Buccaneers to regain some of the swagger with which they are used to walking out of the Raymond James Stadium tunnels. That 'not in our house' attitude is back, and even a Buccaneer newcomer can feel it.
"We have a new game," said rookie Michael Clayton of the renewed rivalry with the Falcons, who beat Tampa Bay 24-14 in Atlanta three weeks ago. "They are coming into our house now. They have a wonderful record. We feel like we have nothing to lose. We'll be just fine."
Quarterback Brian Griese has lit it up both on the road and at home in his seven outings at the Bucs' helm, recording single-game passer ratings of at least 94.4 in each contest. But he has felt especially comfortable in his home starts, and the reasons are not that mysterious.
"We have a little bit of an advantage at home with the crowd noise," said Griese, who as a Buccaneer, Dolphin and Bronco is 18-5 in his last 23 home starts. "In the NFL, that's big. To be able to go out and get in some of your audibles and be able to communicate on offense, and prohibit them from communicating on offense, is a big advantage."
The desire to protect one's home turf, to keep the other team from celebrating a victory on grass painted with Buccaneer colors, is also a motivating factor. That is particularly true this week, with Atlanta having the opportunity to clinch the NFC South title in Tampa. At 9-2 in a division with three 4-7 teams, the Falcons are almost assured of the division crown. That doesn't mean it has to happen this weekend.
"That says it all; if we cannot get excited about that fact right there then something is wrong," said defensive end Greg Spires. "We do not want the Falcons clinching the division on our home field. That alone gets everyone up."
The Bucs have their own reasons for needing a win. Sunday's outcome is far more crucial to Tampa Bay's chances of making the postseason than Atlanta's. Still, the Falcons' opportunity this weekend is not lost on the Buccaneers.
"That is the reality which is facing them," said linebacker Derrick Brooks. "Again, we can let that motivational fact work for us. We need to get our fifth win to stay in the playoff hunt. With that being in mind we did talk about it and we don't want that to happen in our stadium. If that is the case then let them do it somewhere else."
Last year, the Falcons' two-point win in Raymond James Stadium in December officially eliminated the Bucs from playoff contention, though it didn't get Atlanta into the playoffs, either. That loss is still fresh in the minds of Tampa Bay players still around from that '03 team. And even the newcomers grasp the importance of proving to their bitter division rivals that Raymond James Stadium is still a very difficult place to come play.
"We have a lot to prove on our home field, where we've been playing a little bit better as of late," said Griese. "I'm excited to go out and get this game."