Sunday's game, says QB Brad Johnson, is the biggest one of them all
Is eight enough?
Probably not, but it is basically essential, and not by the end of the season, but now.
The NFC playoff picture is remarkably well-formed, given that there are still three weekends remaining in the regular season. Contrast that to just the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' experience last year, when a field goal at the end of regulation of the last game of the season made a difference between the number two seed and the number five seed.
St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco are all in and all have 10 or more wins. Philly is a virtual lock to win the NFC East and grab the third seed and the Green Bay Packers would have to collapse to miss the postseason at this point.
So there's one spot up for grabs for the 7-6 Bucs and New Orleans Saints and the 6-7 Atlanta Falcons, Washington Redskins and New York Giants.
And the team that gets to eight on Sunday will be in the driver's seat. Whether that team then goes on to win nine games or 10 probably won't be terribly relevant, though nine wins at this point won't guarantee a spot.
"You never know what's going on, but we know one thing for sure if we don't beat the Saints we have to depend on help," said Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy. "We have to have them lose two games at home, which you can't really count on. This eighth win is probably the most important one of the season."
Compare the two positions the Bucs could find themselves in after Sunday afternoon. A win would mean they could guarantee a playoff spot without even beating Baltimore the next week. If Tampa Bay beats New Orleans on Sunday and Philadelphia two weeks later, they're in.
If the Bucs lose, they will require not only two home losses by New Orleans, as Dungy points out above, but two wins of their own accord and no magical runs by the Falcons, 'Skins or Giants.
That's a massive difference, and it isn't lost on the Buccaneer players.
"It's been a very emotional season, it is kind of incredible that we are still in the thick of things and we kind of hold our own destiny in our own hands," said quarterback Brad Johnson. "So if there is an important game then the biggest game of the season is this week. This is one we have to win if we expect to make the playoffs. So we are not trying to win a three-game stretch right now. We are trying to win one game and this is the biggest one of them all."
The Bucs and Saints will thus break off into opposite directions by Sunday night, but they are almost parallel seasons that bring the two teams to this point. Both were expected to be larger factors in their respective division races and both have alternated afternoons of brilliance with puzzling let-downs. It may seem fitting that they meet at this point. It may also seem a little cruel
"We wish we had them earlier in the year where we got some of the wins under our belt," said Dungy, "But we would rather be in this situation where you have must-win games, rather than where you have three games in a row on the road."
Nobody wants to belabor the point, but it is unfortunately true: Sunday's contest is just short of a playoff game. Perhaps that is a good thing for the Buccaneers, who have performed well in recent seasons when their fate was truly on the line.
"I guess you have to treat it like a playoff game," conceded wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. "I think, mathematically, you're still possibly in if you lose, whatever the magical theory is there, but you want to win the football game to control your own destiny and make your own decision, much like a playoff game. So, yeah, you have to treat it like a playoff game."
In the best-case scenario, from a Buc point of view, that would lead to the kind of spirited effort the team put forth in St. Louis a month ago, beating the Rams 24-17 in perhaps their most emotional game of the season. Of course, the Saints are likely to be fired up, as well.
"I think you're going to see that from both teams," said Dungy. I think we've already started to see it in our preparation. The guys understand the magnitude of the game."
That's no surprise. You can hardly escape it.