The Bucs have missed the emotional lift provided by the home crowd at Raymond James Stadium
It wasn't exactly a six-week road trip.
For the most part, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been sleeping in their own beds, eating home cooking and playing with their kids for the last month and a half.
There's just one amenity of home of which they've been deprived: the swell of a packed house at Raymond James Stadium.
"When was the last time we were at home?" asked defensive tackle Warren Sapp. "The Patriots game, preseason? It's been a long time. It's been awhile since we've been home, but I think this city is ready and we're ready to get back into the Ray-Jay and let it ride.
"Let's get the party crunk."
Raymond James Stadium – the most distinctive venue in the NFL – was completed in 1998, but not before September had rolled around. That year, the Bucs endured a grueling seven-week road swing, traveling to the likes of Oklahoma City, Canton, Ohio and Oakland for a five-game preseason then opening the season at Minnesota and Green Bay.
Then, on September 20, 1998, the Bucs opened Raymond James Stadium to a packed house of over 64,000 fans. Every single Buc game at Tampa's new stadium has been sold out since, and an increase in the volume and passion of the home crowd has been unmistakable.
The Bucs have now been without that booster shot of home crowd emotion since August 25, when they dominated New England, 20-3. It's their longest time away from Raymond James Stadium, in a season, since that peculiar 1998 opening. Sapp and his teammates might be a bit homesick, as it were.
"It feels good," said safety John Lynch. "We haven't played in that stadium for awhile. To get over the loss of last week, coming in for our first home game is exactly what we need. It really starts in practice, preparing ourselves mentally. We're going to be jacked from the crowd, and that's fine, but we've got to start today to win this game on Sunday."
Lynch, of course, is tuning in well to the message of his head coach, Tony Dungy. While equally pleased to be on the home sideline this week, Dungy wants to make sure his players don't see Raymond James Stadium as some kind of magic elixir. Rather, the home environment is helpful only if you can feed it.
"It's easier to play at home," he said. "The noise becomes your ally instead of your enemy and that's always good. But for us, we just need to play better, whether we're home or on the road. If we play our game, I think we're going to be fine. We can't say we're going to be home so therefore everything is going to work out. We've got to be ready to play up to the home crowd."
The opponent for the Bucs' much-awaited return home is arch rival Green Bay, which has lost all three games it has played in Raymond James Stadium. Those contests have generally been close, however, and the Pack is in first place in the division.
"Every game is big in the NFL," said Dungy. "Every game you win puts you a step closer to where you want to go. Every game you lose makes it tougher. NFC Central games are big. Home games are obviously big. If you lose home, Central Division games, it makes it very, very hard. This will be a big game, no doubt about it."
Sapp is not so concerned that Green Bay is the opponent, or that the Bucs have a home winning streak against their Wisconsin foes.
"The thing about it is, I think this team is just eager to get back on the field," he said. "After a 21-day layoff, then to play the game we played in Minnesota, we're eager to get back to our style, our way of performing on the football field. It just so happens it's Green Bay at home. We've had their number down here. We've just got to punch the clock, go out there and play good offense, defense and special teams."
Defensive end Simeon Rice, signed as a free agent in the offseason, has yet to clock in for a regular season home game in Raymond James Stadium. There might be a little added excitement for Rice, but his thoughts probably sum up the entire team's feelings about coming home again
"Looking at the Buc crowd and feeding off the fans – I think it's going to be a fantastic thing in RJ Stadium," he said.