The 6-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers can win a maximum of nine regular season games in 2015, and will probably have to do so to have any hope of playing in the postseason. Lovie Smith's team is aware of that fact, but also understands that it can't get from six to nine wins in a single night.
"To be in the playoffs, this is a must, simple as that," said Smith of the Buccaneers' Thursday night game in St. Louis. "The only way we have an opportunity to get to nine wins is to get to seven."
Tampa Bay will play its first prime time game since Week Three of last season when they take on the Rams in the Edward Jones Dome, and they would like to show the rest of the NFL that they are indeed a playoff-caliber team. That's just one many points of motivation that the Buccaneers brought with them to the Midwest. What felt like a lost opportunity in Sunday's loss to the Saints can be quickly assuaged in a quick turnaround four days later.
"When you don't play your best ball you want to make it right as soon as possible," said Smith. "That's going back to the practice field, but ultimately going and playing a game, and that's what we're excited about. We haven't played in a nationally-televised game yet, so that's exciting too. And then just where we are in the race, down to the final three games and we need to get a win in the worst way. It's always tough when you go on the road but we feel like we're ready to go."
READ: BUCCANEERS INACTIVES
The Bucs will have to pursue that critical victory without several starters who suffered injuries on Sunday against the Saints. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson, for instance, has been sidelined with a knee injury. Though Jackson's talents are difficult to replace, the Buccaneers believe they have the personnel to keep the passing game in high gear.
"Vincent missed a little bit of time earlier so it's always about the next guy up," said Smith. "Between Russell Shepard, Donteea Dye, Adam Humphries – those guys will fill in along with Mike Evans. I also might add getting Austin Seferian-Jenkins back in there last week – hopefully these things can help offset the loss of Vincent."
On defense, the Bucs will have to adjust to the loss of linebacker Bruce Carter and defensive tackle Akeem Spence.
Carter's ankle injury is ill-timed in that it occurred late in his first start as a Buccaneer on Sunday. The former Dallas Cowboy was filling in at middle linebacker for the suspended Kwon Alexander; now the team has to go a third option with the versatile Danny Lansanah moving into the middle. Lansanah started at all three linebacker positions last year and turned in a string of big plays, including two interceptions returned for touchdowns.
"We will miss Bruce," said Lovie Smith. "Whenever you're down to your third starting middle linebacker for a season it's tough duty, but that's why it's good to have a player like Danny Lansanah who's been around here and started at that position. Danny Lansanah will fill in for Bruce Carter today and Orie Lemon will fill in at the strongside linebacker position."
The Bucs are also moving on to their third starting nose tackle of the season with Akeem Spence out due to an ankle injury. Veteran Tony McDaniel, who has played well in an expanded role the past two weeks, will make his first start of the season. The Bucs' offensive front will also welcome back starting right end Jacquies Smith, who missed the last two games with a hamstring injury.
"He is good to go," said Lovie Smith of Jacquies Smith. "We have been waiting for him to get back because he's a big part of what we do. He played at the University of Missouri so this is a big game for him. He's good to go today and should give us some more depth, as will Tony McDaniel. He played pretty good last week and he'll fill in for Akeem Spence."
PHOTOS: BUCS VS. RAMS THROUGH THE YEARS
That defensive front, shuffled once again, will have to deal with one of the NFL's rising stars in Rams RB Todd Gurley. St. Louis relies on its running game more than any team in the league, ranking sixth in rushing yards and last in passing yards. Gurley has five 100-yard rushing games this season, and the Rams have won four of those contests. They've won just one other game in 2015. The Bucs are preparing for a big dose of the Rams' upstart rookie.
"It's a big challenge," said Smith. "He's a great running back and they're committed to the run. We just need to be disciplined in our gaps. One thing we've done a pretty good job of throughout the year is to be able to control the opponent's running game. We'll need to do it tonight as much as any game this year."
In addition to Carter, Jackson and Spence, the Buccaneers deactivated QB Ryan Griffin, T Demar Dotson, TE Brandon Myers and DE George Johnson. Johnson was also out due to injury.
The Rams placed DE Robert Quinn on injured reserve but otherwise have few injuries affecting their starting lineup. Their seven inactives are QB Sean Mannion, CB Eric Patterson, DE Louis Trinca-Pasat, T Andrew Donnal, G/C Brian Folkerts, T Isaiah Battle and DE Matt Longacre.
The Buccaneers take on the Rams on Thursday night with kickoff scheduled for 8:25 p.m. ET. The game will be played in the Edward Jones Dome and will be broadcast by the NFL Network and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.