The Bucs want to get back on top of their rivalries with the Panthers, Falcons and Saints in 2005
On November 22, a day after demolishing the San Francisco 49ers, 35-3, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stood at 4-6 with six games to play.
It wasn't an enviable position, exactly, but given the way the NFC race was unfolding, with only Philadelphia and Atlanta running away from the pack, the Bucs were still very much alive for the postseason. Furthermore, four of their last six games would be against fellow NFC South teams, three of them at home.
The Buccaneers did shut out Atlanta, 27-0, on December 5. Unfortunately, that has been Tampa Bay's only win since the San Francisco game. Two losses to Carolina, in typically frustrating fashion, sandwiched a last-second defeat at the hands of the New Orleans Saints. Even before the season began, it was clear that the three December home games against the rest of the division would be the most critical stretch of the season. The Bucs will be home in January because they won only two of them.
That has to change in 2005 if the Buccaneers hope to return to the playoffs and the Super Bowl.
"You have to win your divisional games," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "You have to match up with your opponents within the division and that will be isolated carefully [during the offseason]. We will do all we can to put our team in a better position to win these divisional games because there are some talented people in this conference."
In 2002, the Bucs were 4-2 against the rest of the NFC South, though their two tight losses to the Saints accounted for half of the games that got away during that Super Bowl season. Last year, Carolina took the South away from the Bucs largely on the strength of two last-minute wins over the defending champions. This season, the Falcons may have been beaten soundly by the Bucs in early December, but they can count two wins over Carolina among their 11 victories on the season. Atlanta will be the NFC's number-two seed in the playoffs behind Philadelphia, exactly where the Bucs were two years ago.
The Bucs' biggest problems have been with the Carolina Panthers, but they also lost at Atlanta and at home against the Saints. The Bucs won't get a chance to avenge '04 losses to Seattle, Denver or San Diego next year, but they know that the Falcons, Panthers and Saints will be on the schedule. Twice each.
The NFC South, thought by some to be the weakest division when the NFL realigned before the 2002 season, has proved to be very strong and incredibly competitive. That's why the Falcons, Panthers and Saints will be the Bucs' primary concern this offseason. Personnel moves will be made with intra-conference matchups in mind.
"We'll put the Saints up on the board, their defensive line, their offensive line, their running backs and their receivers, how we match up with the Saints," said Gruden. "We'll do the same thing with Carolina. We'll do the same thing with Atlanta. The NFC South is stable now. There is some continuity in terms of every-year occurrences. We're used to seeing each other twice."
That's not to say they've enjoyed the meetings, at least not of late. The Panthers have defeated Tampa Bay four of six times – four in a row – since the South was formed and, over the last two years, have consistently made the necessary big plays at the end of games. Some of the losses have come in bizarre fashion, but that doesn't mean that the Panthers didn't earn them. The Bucs may not have a lot of love for Carolina, but the respect is definitely there. And they don't expect the Panthers to get worse any time soon.
"They have had some injuries, but when you look out there on the field, in some ways people think Carolina is a better football team now than they were last year," said Gruden.. They didn't have Mark Fields last year. They didn't have [Chris] Gamble who was a first round corner from Ohio State. Many people think they are as good or better, and given the fact that Kris Jenkins is missing, that is a scary thought now. These guys are very big and very physical defensively. Although Steve Smith and [Stephen] Davis are out, what can you say about the year [Muhsin] Muhammad has had, thrust into the go-to-role, 14 touchdowns. Their tight ends are getting better. I think Jordan Gross shows why he was an early first round pick as a left tackle. They have a veteran quarterback that understands their system."
The Panthers' talent was overshadowed by an injury-plagued, 1-7 start to the season, but they lost only once since midseason and are in position to become the first team ever to rebound from a start that poor and make the playoffs. That will at least give them the opportunity to defend their NFC title, something the Bucs didn't get in 2003.
"They are well coached and they are on a roll," said Gruden. "They are on a mission."
The Bucs' mission is clear, too: Regain their foothold in the NFC South, starting next year.