The Tampa Bay Buccaneers came in early on Thursday morning and left One Buccaneer Place by noon, or shortly thereafter.
Before players and coaches departed to enjoy Thanksgiving celebrations with their families, the team made sure to get in its most important practice of the week. The full-speed two-hour session was moved up an hour to a 9:20 start but the Buccaneers remained focused on the Baltimore Ravens and this Sunday's critical matchup between two teams in the thick of the playoff hunt.
Then it was time to give thanks, for a 7-3 start, for a talented young roster that has come together much more quickly than many expected and, as Head Coach Raheem Morris noted on Wednesday, for the opportunity to be involved in meaningful games in late November and December. The Bucs can be thankful that Morris' preseason proclamation that the Bucs were in a "Race to 10," as in 10 victories and a strong shot at the playoffs, proved to have staying power. In the end, though, 10 might not end up as the final target number.
"The whole thing key the Race to 10 and the only thing it means is to set yourself up to be playing relevant games at the end of the season," he said. "If you get 10 wins, you're playing in relevant games at the end of the season. Whether that qualifies you for the playoffs, or whether that keeps you going to 11 or 12 or 13 or whatever you need to qualify, you're playing in relevant games.
"If we get to 10, and they say we've got to win two more games to get into the playoffs, then certainly the goal will be Race to 12. That's just our mindset. Right now we're in the hunt and we just want to play relevant games."
The Buccaneers have a lot of company, however, when it comes to being thankful for stretch-run relevance. In fact, there are 19 teams, out of a possible 32, that are currently in first place in one of the eight divisions or within a game of first. That's the most in the history of the league this far into a season.
The Buccaneers and Ravens are among those 19; Tampa Bay trails 8-2 Atlanta by one game while Baltimore, at 7-3, is tied with Pittsburgh atop the AFC North. Unlike a handful of those 19 teams, such as the 4-6 St. Louis Rams or the 505 Tennessee Titans, the Buccaneers and Ravens are also very close to the top of their respective Wild Card races.
Three of those 19 teams were scheduled to play on Thursday as part of the league's expanded Thanksgiving Day slate – New England, New Orleans and the New York Jets – but all are pitted against teams with records of 3-7 or worse. The Sunday slate, on the other hand, will feature three matchups between teams that are 7-3 or better, including one of the biggest games for Tampa Bay in some time.
In addition to the Bucs and Ravens, 8-2 Atlanta will play host to the 7-3 Green Bay Packers while Philadelphia and Chicago will put identical 7-3 records on the line at Soldier Field. For the Buccaneers, that matchup with the Ravens will mark the first time since 2005 that they had a 7-3 or better record after 10 games and were then slated to play another team at 7-3 or better.
The Bucs lost that game in '05, 13-10 to the Chicago Bears, but then won four of the next five and took the NFC South title. Prior to that, the most recent such matchup for the Buccaneers was in 2002, when Tampa Bay and Green Bay each brought 8-2 records into a game at Raymond James Stadium and the Bucs finished with the NFL's best record.
Three Week 11 matchups of that type of importance to both teams in a span of nine years is actually a big misleading, at least as it relates to Buccaneers history. Before 2002, the Bucs had never been 7-3 or better after 10 games and then played another team that was 7-3 or better in Game 11.
In other words, Buccaneer fans should enjoy the nice NFL appetizer they're getting on Thanksgiving, because Sunday is going to be another fine feast.
Another Week for Moore
The Buccaneers won't release their full injury report with game-status designations until Friday, but it appears certain that defensive end Kyle Moore will miss a third straight game due to a shoulder problem that has bothered him for much of the season.
The Buccaneers had hoped Moore might return to practice this week, but in the end decided that a little more recovery time was needed.
"We'll hopefully see him practice next week," said Morris. "I believe so. We've got to wait until next week, get there and hopefully it will be next Wednesday. We'll have more information then, and then hopefully next Thursday we'll get him out there in practice and throw some pads on. I think we're getting to that point where we're getting closer. It was a possibility this week, but we decided against and we'll wait until next week."
Moore was the only player on the Buccaneers' 53-man roster who did practice on Thursday. The other four players on Tampa Bay's injury report – linebacker Quincy Black (ankle), wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (foot), tackle Jeremy Trueblood (knee) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee) – all participated without limitations.
Trueblood first sustained his knee injury against the St. Louis Rams in Week Seven. He missed the next two games and then was active but did not start in the Bucs' wins over Carolina and San Francisco. Third-year player James Lee has started at right tackle in his place – the first four starts of Lee's career – and impressed the Buccaneers' coaching staff. Lee's performance has allowed the team to be cautious with Trueblood in his return.
"He was out there and practicing and it was full, so let's go see where he was, how his knee is and how everything's working there," said Morris of Trueblood, who had started 67 consecutive games at right tackle for the Buccaneers before his injury. "I didn't see anything glaring from the field but I've got to go check it out on the practice film.
"It's always a competition but James Lee has played well. You hate to rush [Trueblood] back, if you're not going to get a full-speed Trueblood especially, so that's the caution there. That's what you're waiting for, waiting for him to come back and be healthy and to deal."
The Buccaneers-Ravens series includes only three previous contests, as Baltimore was technically termed an expansion franchise after moving from Cleveland in 1996. It's noteworthy that despite having just three prior meetings, each team already owns a shutout in the series.
That's somewhat fitting, even if those two shutouts have little bearing on this weekend's game. The Bucs' roster bears almost no resemblance to the one that was blanked by Baltimore, 27-0, on opening day in 2006, and certainly the current Ravens are nothing like the '02 squad that lost 25-0 at home to the Super Bowl-bound Buccaneers.
It's fitting because few teams have been at adept as pitching shutouts over the past decade as the Ravens and Bucs. Baltimore actually leads the NFL in shutouts since 2010 with nine, while the Buccaneers have seven shutouts and are tied for second with New England and Seattle. Last weekend, Tampa Bay pitched one of only three shutouts in the league this season, topping San Francisco 21-0.
Overall, Baltimore has better scoring defense numbers than the Buccaneers in 2010, allowing 17.8 points per game to Tampa Bay's 20.6. However, the Buccaneers are 7-3 in part because they've been at their stingiest when the game has been on the line.
Obviously, Tampa Bay held San Francisco to no points after halftime last Sunday, but that actually marked the fourth time this season that the Bucs have pitched a second-half shutout. Overall, the Buccaneers have allowed just 72 second-half points this season, or just over one touchdown per game, which ranks third in the NFL. Only Chicago (61) and Green Bay (69) have allowed fewer.