LB Hardy Nickerson doesn't want to look too far ahead
Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy likened the Bucs' new first-place berth to a pole position in an Indy-car race: a good spot to be in but no guarantee of a win. A win this Sunday is a guarantee of a sort, however. Tampa Bay can clinch its second playoff spot in two years with a victory in Oakland.
Though only three weeks remain in the regular season, Tampa Bay is one of just a few teams in the NFC that can assure their playoff lives this weekend. St. Louis has already clinched the NFC West title but no other team in that division can earn a berth this weekend. Detroit, a game behind the Bucs in the Central standings, can also grab one of the playoff spots with a win but they need a combination of other favorable results to do so. No team in the NFC East can clinch a spot this weekend.
"I'm very, very proud of this team," said Dungy on Monday after the Bucs' critical win over Detroit on Sunday. "It's a great feeling to be in first place…but they don't pay you to for being on the pole, they pay you to finish in front. So we've got a lot of work to do. We've to two road games and it's going to be tough, but I'd certainly rather be one (game) up than one down right now."
The prevailing sentiment in the Bucs' locker room after their come-from-behind 23-16 victory on Sunday was that the most positive aspect of the team's 'pole position' was that it allowed Tampa Bay to control its own fate. In 1997, the Buccaneers spent most of December scrambling for a Wild Card spot and, eventually, a first-round home game as Green Bay walked away with the Central crown. Last year, a rough start put the Bucs on the fringe of the playoff race, which they didn't exit until the final moments of the last regular season Sunday.
Those types of concerns could be laid to rest on Sunday with a victory in Oakland, where the Bucs are winless in two previous tries. While Tampa Bay cannot clinch the NFC Central title this Sunday, they can guarantee a one-game lead with two weeks to play. The Bucs then face Green Bay at home and Chicago on the road to close out the season while Detroit gets Denver at home then heads to Minnesota for the finale. The Vikings and Packers each dropped two games with last-minute losses on Sunday.
Tampa Bay is even in line for a first round bye, which they would own if the playoffs started today. Only the Rams, at 11-2, have a better mark in the NFC than the Bucs' 9-4 record. However, as one would expect, Dungy is not contemplating that possibility just yet. "Well, we're not really looking at that," said Dungy. "Our first goal is to get in the playoffs and our second goal is to get in the easiest way we can, which is to win. We've got three games left, and if we play as well as we can and don't win the division, I wouldn't be disappointed. But if we don't play well, that would be a disappointment. We're going to focus in on playing each game down the stretch, starting in Oakland."
Amazingly, a win over the Raiders would put the Bucs in the playoffs earlier than they have ever gotten an invitation before. The Buccaneers clinched their most recent postseason berth, in 1997, after a Week 15 game in which they lost to the New York Jets. Though the team won the NFC Central titles in both 1979 and 1981, neither championship was secured until the final game of the season, and a playoff berth without the division crown was also not assured. In the strike-shortened 1982 season, Tampa Bay won its last three games to sneak into the playoffs at 5-4.
Even with the team's goal so close to becoming reality, Dungy doesn't expect his team's current level of intensity to wane. "We've got some guys that have been waiting for this for a long time," said Dungy, "including some guys that were here before I got here. These guys have looked forward to these big games and they're playing hard and not letting us let down."
Prominent among those veterans mentioned by Dungy is 13-year linebacker Hardy Nickerson, a four-time Pro Bowler who has appeared in five playoff games, three with Pittsburgh and two with the Bucs. He confirms what Coach Dungy suspects, that his team is focused on the next step instead of January. "We're definitely on a roll right now," said Nickerson. "I don't even want to stick my head up. I just want to keep it down and keep going."