The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hope to unwrap one more gift before this holiday weekend is over.
Those Bucs who celebrate Christmas have had an interesting few days, with Christmas Eve falling on Friday, Christmas Day on Saturday and the team's critical Week 16 game against Seattle on Sunday. The crowded schedule required some rearranging from the usual routine – and NFL coaches and players are very much creatures of routine – but it also provided an opportunity for a very enjoyable and productive weekend.
Extra family time on the holidays followed by a do-or-die win against their 1976 expansion mates? That would pretty much complete any Bucs' wish list.
"We had a chance to go home and be with family and friends, people that you care about," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "I got a chance to let my team be with their families. That's always a good thing, to let these guys get away a little bit and not caught up in all football all the time.
"It went really well. We got everybody out there on the grass and did our normal routine, except for the little Christmas change. We got all our work done and got our complement of men going. We got some of the new guys implemented into our plan. We feel good about today and we're ready to go out there and play."
A few hours difference on Friday and Saturday didn't significantly disrupt the Buccaneers' preparations for the Seahawks; if there's one thing the NFL's youngest team has proved it can do in 2010, it's compartmentalize potential distractions and stay focused on the task at hand.
"Outside of the building, life is what it is," said Morris. "Inside the building, we're football players and football coaches and football employees. We do our job. When we're doing our jobs, we're alert, we're having fun and we do what we need to do."
The task at hand on Sunday is to stay alive in the NFC playoff hunt. Unless both the New York Giants (at Green Bay) and New Orleans Saints (at Atlanta on Monday) also win this weekend, a victory over Seattle will keep the Buccaneers in the postseason picture headed into Week 17. And, if a Bucs win is coupled with losses by the Saints and Packers, Tampa Bay will head to New Orleans knowing it can clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Saints.
The Bucs' road to the playoffs would have a few more options if they had held on to beat Detroit a week ago, but the sting of that 20-17 overtime loss has faded quickly, as it must.
"We don't go in there and have lingering effects from any game, whether it's a win or a loss," said Morris. "Your next game is your most important, and these guys attacked the week with their preparation and what they were able to do. That will determine what happens in the game."
The Buccaneers and Seahawks saw their game flexed from its original kickoff time of 1:00 p.m. ET to 4:15 because it has serious playoff implications for both teams (Seattle comes in tied for first in the NFC West). That and just about everything else about Sunday's game is an indication of the unpredictable nature of the NFL. The weather, for instance, took a sharp turn from the few days before, promising the Bucs and 'Hawks a cold and windy late-afternoon environment. If that's an unusual Raymond James Stadium setting, it's no more unexpected than the Buccaneers being serious Wild Card contenders or the Seahawks having a division title within their grasp despite a 6-8 record.
Not even the players who are likely going to be difference-makers in Sunday's game could have been predicted four months ago. The most obvious example is Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount, whose incredible debut season has given Tampa Bay its best rushing attack in years. The Bucs are on pace to average more yards per game on the ground in any season since 1998, and their 4.5 yards per carry as a team would easily break franchise single-season record.
The Buccaneers grabbed the rookie from Oregon off waivers in early September and even then likely did not expect him to emerge as their top runner. But he produced his third 100-yard game of the season last year and is personally gaining 4.7 yards per tote. A lot of that has come after contact, as Blount has made breaking tackles – and occasionally hurdling over them – into an art form.
"LeGarrette Blount's become an integral part of our offense," said Morris. "He's brought us a lot of versatility as far as how we run the ball. He certainly has to get out there and get his plays in and do his job the correct way, and then we'll be able to lean on him heavily. He shows a nice mixture of power, strength and speed, but it's also about the guys around him, the guys up front, the coaches designing the plays, the downfield blocking. All of that plays heavily into what we've been able to do and how we're growing."
One of Blount's usual blockers will be missing on Sunday, as starting right tackle James Lee was unable to fully recover from the ankle injury he suffered last weekend against Detroit. That moves former starter Jeremy Trueblood back into the starting lineup and gives the Bucs their eighth different starting O-Line combination this year.
Tampa Bay will also be without Sammie Stroughter, a valuable weapon in the slot and on third downs, as the second-year receiver is suffering from a hamstring strain. That could lead to additional playing time for any one of four other receivers: Micheal Spurlock, Maurice Stovall, Preston Parker and Dezmon Briscoe. This marks the first time that Briscoe, a rookie who spent much of the season on the Bucs' practice squad, will be active for a regular-season game.
In addition to Lee and Stroughter, the Bucs declared the following players inactive for Sunday's game: S Dominique Harris, RB Kregg Lumpkin, CB D.J. Johnson, DE George Johnson, TE Nathan Overbay and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter.
Seattle had some injuries to contend with this week, as well, placing CB Roy Lewis and DT Junior Siavii on injured reserve. Like the Buccaneers, however, they still have plenty of talented players to throw into the fray, many of them just coming into their won.
"They're a young team as well," said Morris. "Those guys go out there and they play hard and they play fast and they finish. We've got to improve our tempo to match them. On offense, they've got a fine group. [Offensive Coordinator] Jeremy Bates has done a fine job of putting those guys into position to make plays. They'll continue to get better and better throughout the process. They're in their first year and you can expect that they're going to get better and better every week."
The Seahawks could have thrown one more new player into the fire had they chosen to start fifth-year QB Charlie Whitehurst, but Head Coach Pete Carroll elected to stick with veteran Matt Hasselbeck. Whitehurst relieved Hasselbeck in the middle of Seattle's loss to Atlanta last weekend, and he could be available if Hasselbeck struggles again. The team's default starter since 2001, Hasselbeck has tossed eight interceptions over his last three games.
"You've got to prepare for the Seattle Seahawks and what they do," said Morris of the small amount of uncertainty around Seattle's passers. "We're prepared to play the Seahawks and whichever guy they send out. Hopefully we've done a nice job in our preparations for these guys."
Seattle deactivated these eight players: CB Marcus Brown, LB Will Herring, G Paul Fanaika, T Breno Giacomini, T William Robinson, T Stacy Andrews, WR Ruvell Martin and designated third quarterback J.P Losman.
The Bucs and Lions kick off at 4:15 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.