Starting strong safety Jermaine Phillips will probably miss the season finale due to a knee sprain
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers need one more win to claim the 2005 NFC South title. They may need 53 men to get it done.
The Bucs' depth will be tested in next Sunday's regular season finale against New Orleans, as the team may be without as many as three starters, all of whom were hurt in the 27-24 victory over Atlanta on Saturday. Wide receiver Michael Clayton and strong safety Jermaine Phillips are unlikely to play against the Saints and right tackle Kenyatta Walker is a serious question mark.
Tampa Bay and Carolina head into the final weekend with identical 10-5 records and a split in the head-to-head series. Thus, the Bucs' superior division record would give them the title if they notch their 11th victory, regardless of the Panthers' fate in Atlanta. The Bucs moved into that favorable position on Saturday when, following Carolina's last-minute loss to Dallas, Tampa Bay came back to beat the Falcons in the final seconds of overtime.
However, Clayton left the Falcon game early due to a turf toe injury on his left foot and was not able to return. Walker suffered ankle and foot injuries and missed a good portion of the second half and overtime, coming back in at one point but then leaving again to be replaced by Todd Steussie. Phillips finished the game but also sustained a right knee sprain.
On Monday, Head Coach Jon Gruden said it was "most likely" that Clayton will be sidelined for the finale. He also referred to Phillips as "doubtful," though no official injury reports will be released until Wednesday. Walker, who was considered questionable for much of the previous week due to a shoulder injury, will be in a similar situation as he attempts to recover from his new ailments in time to play.
"[Walker will] probably be limited on the practice field and we'll let you know as time moves forward," said Gruden, who also confirmed that veteran Todd Steussie would start at right tackle if Walker is unavailable.
The Bucs have been dealing with safety injuries for much of the season and have been fortunate to have, essentially, three starters for two spots at that position. Phillips and Dexter Jackson were the opening-day starters, but Phillips missed two games in October and Jackson was out for a total of five games in the middle of the season. In each case, second-year man Will Allen stepped into the starting lineup, with the exception of the Week 11 game at Atlanta, when both Allen and Jackson were sidelined with injuries and Kalvin Pearson drew the start. Allen missed three games in November and December but Jackson was back for the last two.
Now it appears to be Phillips' turn to sit again and Allen, recovered from his knee injury, will be ready to take his place. The Bucs' two safety positions are largely interchangeable and Allen has performed well at both spots this season.
The Bucs have also successfully overcome the absence of Clayton at one other time this season. The second-year receiver, who has struggled with his health and productivity after an 80-catch rookie season, was unavailable for the Washington game in Week 10 due to a knee injury. Veteran Ike Hilliard drew the start and inexperienced third-year man Edell Shepherd saw increased action, and the two combined to give the Bucs excellent production out of the flanker position in a thrilling, 36-35 victory.
Shepherd, in fact, scored the game-winning touchdown on a diving, 30-yard catch near the end of regulation and finished with three catches for 87 yards. Hilliard, who also has 11 grabs in the Bucs' last three games, contributed three receptions for 37 yards and a touchdown against Washington.
"We'll do what we did against the Redskins earlier in the year, and what we did Saturday [after Clayton's injury]," said Gruden. "We'll play Ike Hilliard and Edell Shepherd and, if need be, Mark Jones."
The opportunity for increased playing time might be excellently timed for Shepherd, who is eager to prove once again, as he did against Washington, that he is a valuable asset to the team. His fumble of the kickoff to open overtime could have cost the Bucs the victory (DE Dewayne White blocked the ensuing field goal) but instead became a forgettable footnote in his team's eventual victory. Shepherd said he has put the pain of the moment behind him but admitted that he is looking forward to a fresh opportunity.
"You have to put it behind you, but as an athlete and a person like me of course you would say I want to go back out there and redeem myself," he said. "At the same time, I have to stay focused and stay ready to play and not let that distract me in any way."
Gruden didn't have an opportunity – or much of a voice – to speak with Shepherd after Saturday's game, but he figures he'll have an opportunity to pull the receiver to the side at some point this week.
"I'll just let him know that's part of football," said Gruden. "You've got to protect the ball, he knows that. We're going to have to lean on him now, obviously, if Michael Clayton is no longer able to play."
NFL Confirms Bucs' Playoff Scenarios
As outlined on Buccaneers.com earlier, the Buccaneers' earliest chance to clinch a playoff spot will be on Saturday night, when the New York Giants play at Oakland. If the Giants win, the Bucs will clinch a spot in the six-team field.
Of course, as mentioned, the Bucs can do the dirty work themselves, and clinch the division title as well, by beating New Orleans on Sunday. There are several other scenarios that get Tampa Bay into the postseason, including a loss by Dallas, and they were outlined in that previous article. On Monday afternoon, the NFL sent out its official list of scenarios, which confirmed those Buccaneer possibilities and expressed them in the league's simple playoff math.
Here is the NFL's description of what is at stake for Tampa Bay next weekend:
Tampa Bay can clinch division title with:
1) TB win, OR 2) CAR loss, OR 3) TB tie CAR tie.
Tampa Bay can clinch playoff berth with:
1) TB tie, OR 2) DAL loss or tie, OR 3) WAS loss or tie, OR 4) NYG win or tie, OR 5) TB clinches strength of victory tiebreaker over DAL or NYG.
Thus, if you want to know the doomsday scenario for the Buccaneers next weekend, the perfect combinations to oust them from the playoffs, here it is:
Bucs loss to New Orleans Cowboys win over St. Louis Redskins win over Philadelphia Giants loss to Oakland the right combination of wins and losses around the rest of the league to make the Bucs' final strength of victory worse than that of Dallas and the Giants.