Since the NFL expanded its playoffs to six spots in each conference in 1990, only one team has won 11 games and not been a part of the postseason field: the 2008 New England Patriots.
Even extending the search back into the five-team fields prior to 1990 or the four-team fields prior to 1978, there is still only one additional 11-win team that didn't get to taste the playoffs: the 1985 Denver Broncos.
And even if you wish to take it back through the entire Super Bowl era, to a point when there were only division winners and no Wild Card slots, there is still only one more team on the list: the poor Baltimore Colts, who went 11-1-2 in 1967 but lost a tiebreaker to the 11-1-2 Los Angeles Rams.
Why is this relevant? Because with their eighth win last Sunday in Washington, the Buccaneers put themselves in position to potentially finish the season with an 11-5 record. It won't necessarily be easy, and given the top-heavy nature of the NFC this year, it won't even necessarily keep them off the above list of near-misses, but it is still within the Buccaneers control.
That's all they asked for when they started the Race to 10 back in September, with most outside analysts not even expecting them to sniff the eight wins they already have.
The NFC playoff race will be decided by a wild three weeks of outcomes involving the Eagles, Giants, Bears, Packers, Falcons, Saints, Rams, Seahawks…and yes, the Buccaneers. There are dozens of potential variables, but Buccaneer players and coaches only really have to worry about three of them, and specifically only one of them for the next four days.
"I'm a firm believer in controlling your own destiny," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "I'm not the guy to rush home and look at the scoreboard, hoping for someone else to lose. I kind of prefer to go out there and do it our way. The one-at-a-time theory. Remain resilient. Don't let injuries or any distractions slip in the way and become an excuse. I'm not built that way, we're not built that way, and I just think if we go out there and handle one game at a time it really doesn't matter. Just go out there and give it our best efforts."
On the list of official Week 15 playoff scenarios distributed by the NFL on Wednesday morning, only one team had already clinched a playoff spot (New England in the AFC) and only three other teams could claim a spot this weekend solely on their own victories (Pittsburgh and Jacksonville in the AFC, Atlanta in the NFC). Who will really be controlling their own destinies in Weeks 16 and 17 is still to be determined, but the Bucs have kept themselves in the conversation. Sunday's win in Washington helped the cause immensely.
"These guys go out and they play hard, they practice hard and it's paid off," said Morris. "They're sitting at the point where they're 8-5, they're racing to 10 – may need more – and we're trying to go out there and meet that ultimate goal, to qualify for that next round of competition."
Depending upon the results of the next two weeks, the Buccaneers' season finale in New Orleans could be a hugely important game to the entire conference. That's a fine conversation piece for fans or the media, but Tampa Bay's coaching staff and roster have not yet begun to think about the Saints. The Detroit Lions are next and the Race to 10 can't afford to slow down for one weekend.
The Lions, in fact, helped Tampa Bay's standing with their win over the Packers last Sunday. The Bucs didn't need that reminder that Detroit is a serious threat, despite their 3-10 record.
"I say it every week at this podium," said Morris. "People keep talking about a 'signature win,' or people keep talking about you playing a lesser opponent or a better opponent. The NFL is beautiful because of 'any given Sunday.' You can go out there and play anybody any given Sunday and they can beat you. Or you can beat anybody on that Sunday. That's what the NFL's about.
"Every win you get in the NFL is a big-time win, and it helps you get towards what everybody is looking for: that last win. That's the signature win, the one that's held in Dallas this year. Everybody's trying to get to that goal. Going into it, I don't have to pump my guys up to play Detroit. I don't have to pump my guys up to play anybody. You've got to come out and be ready to play based on what our criteria is: fast, hard, smart and consistent."
Deckerhoff Among Florida's Best…Again
Just like the team he helps bring to life for radio listeners all across Florida, Gene Deckerhoff might just get to 11 this year.
Deckerhoff, who has been "The Voice of the Buccaneers" on the Buccaneers' Radio Network for the last 22 years, has already received the Florida Sportscaster of the Year Award 10 times during his illustrious career. He could add one more trophy to his mantle in 2010.
The National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association (NSSA) has announced that Deckerhoff is one of three finalists for that award again this year. His fellow finalists are Eric Reid of the Miami Heat and David Steele of the Orlando Magic. The decision will be made by a vote of members of the Florida sports media on the NSSA web site.
Deckerhoff has become almost synonymous with Florida sportscasting over his more than three decades of work for the Buccaneers, Florida State University and several other in-state teams. He has called FSU basketball games since 1974 and Seminole football games since 1979. That often creates wild travel weekends for the man with the instantly recognizable voice, but his dedication to the craft never wavers.
For the Buccaneers, Deckerhoff has provided the play-by-play for more than 400 preseason, regular season and playoff games since taking his spot in the booth in 1989. He has called the action for six Tampa Bay head coaches, hundreds of players and seven playoff teams, and uttered his signature, "Touchdown Tampa Bay!" countless times. In 2002, he thrilled Buccaneer fans with his call of the team's victory over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Now Deckerhoff may once again be recognized as the top sportscaster in the state of Florida. If things go right, an 11-time award winner could soon be describing the action in the NFL playoffs for an eighth time.
A New Role for Bennett
Despite a good showing in his first preseason with the Buccaneers – he had two of the team's three sacks this summer – second-year defensive end Michael Bennett was inactive for the team's first three regular-season games.
Bennett didn't lose patience during that September of idle Sundays, nor did the Buccaneers. In fact, they were pleased with what they were seeing from Bennett and had every intention of working him into the defensive line rotation after their fourth-week bye. It was simply a matter of progression for the young defender; he was becoming more familiar with the Buccaneers' defensive scheme and the job of a defensive end within it.
After the break, Bennett played in the Bucs win at Cincinnati and hasn't been inactive since. Though his stats over the next 10 games weren't overwhelming (10 tackles, one sack), he was an energetic part of a deep rotation the team was using to try to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
"I think I've improved a lot. I came from the three-technique and was playing end, and I was just learning the defense and becoming more mature within the team. I wasn't just the guy out there trying to make splash plays, but coming into my own. I didn't really play a lot at the beginning of the season. I just really started to get a lot of reps, and the better I played the coaches gave me more chances.
The most important development for Bennett, who had been seen as a possible fit at the three-technique defensive tackle spot when the Bucs snapped him up off waivers from Seattle last October, was to learn not to rely solely on his considerable athletic abilities. The Bucs needed to see him understand his responsibilities in their scheme in order to trust him on game days.
"I would be jumping around gaps and just trying to make plays in the backfield," he said. "Now I'm trying to play within the defense and trying to make plays within the scheme – try to keep the linemen off the backers and stuff like that."
Now the Buccaneers have another task for Bennett, one that shows how much trust they now have in him. With the loss of rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to injured reserve, the team needs more help on the inside. Bennett provided that help in the second half of the Bucs' win over Washington on Sunday, after McCoy went down with a biceps tear, and he's expected to be utilized in that manner over the next three weeks, too.
"I'm trying to play whatever they ask me to do," said Bennett. "They want me to play a little three[-technique], they want me to play a little end, so I'm just getting used to playing both. It wasn't that difficult [against Washington] because I knew if I jumped the ball real fast it would be easier. If I didn't come off the ball well I knew it would be a tough game because they would keep coming at me. I just tried to use my quickness."
Bennett actually shed some weight when it became clear that he would be focusing on defensive end, a fact that he laughed about on Wednesday when discussing his move back inside. He certainly won't be one of the heftier men in the middle of the trenches over the next few weeks, but he's not worried about a size disadvantage.
"I've always been undersized when I played three-technique," he said. "I was 275, now I'm just 265 so it's still just about playing with leverage and speed and trying to get off the ball before they do."
The best part is, he won't have to wait a month to get into the action this time.
"It's always difficult when you're a player and you want to get in the game and play," he said. "But most of the time the coaches have got good intentions. They're not going to put you in a bad situation. Whenever they think you're ready they'll put you in there."