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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Ultimate Goal

The road to the playoffs is now a lot rockier for the Buccaneers, but the team’s true goals are set even higher, and that journey can start at any time


LB Ian Gold and the Bucs' defense has the team speed to counter Michael Vick and the Falcons

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can keep the Atlanta Falcons from winning the 2004 NFC South title.

Oh, in the long run, probably not. Five games up with five games to play – that's Atlanta's current cushion – is just a sliver away from complete security. But the Bucs can keep them from winning it this week, in Tampa, and they can get revenge for a hard-fought loss in Atlanta just three weeks ago.

This is not to say that the Bucs have already adopted the role of 'spoiler.' Despite damaging losses at Atlanta and Carolina, the Bucs are still alive in the NFC playoff race. In fact, they are right where they started last weekend: One game behind the last Wild Card spot. At 4-7, the Bucs are part of a bizarre, seven-team logjam sitting a game behind St. Louis and the New York Giants, who are currently tied for the last spot.

The Bucs are worse off than a week ago, of course, because they've got one less week to make up ground. But they have not yet traded in their own dreams for the spoiler role of crushing others. Rather, the emphasis on what can be accomplished immediately this weekend against the Falcons is just that – the time-honored 'one-game-at-a-time' approach. Gotta win the next one in order to win five in a row.

"I think we have a shot to win any game we play," said Head Coach Gruden. "I don't look too far down the road. We'll play you. We'll be there. We'll fight you. We just have to find a way to get the horse in the stable a little bit better."

The Bucs ran pretty good races in Atlanta and Carolina, at least for big portions of both games. They rallied from 17-0 to 17-14 against the Falcons and had the ball in Atlanta territory facing a fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter. In Carolina, they tied the game at 14-14 in the fourth quarter and lined up for the go-ahead field goal with two minutes to play. But the Bucs spit the bit with misses on both of those key moments, and their opponents followed with the big plays that decided the games.

That has been a familiar refrain this season, but a little less so at home, so the Bucs have confidence that they can be the ones coming up big at the end of Sunday's game against the Falcons at Raymond James Stadium.

"We played pretty good [at Carolina]," said Gruden. "We played good against St. Louis. When you squander opportunities to score and you turn the ball over in the other team's red zone, chances of winning in this league are remote. We've played a little bit better at home. It has been a goal, an emphasis of ours. We have a nucleus of very good players. They take pride in that."

The Bucs have won their last three home games, with blowouts over Chicago and San Francisco and an impressive shootout victory against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Falcons, admittedly, come into the game with a 9-2 pedigree that is better than those three teams could claim; however, the Bucs have believed throughout the last three seasons that they match up well with Atlanta.

Nowadays, that means matching up with electrifying quarterback Michael Vick. The heated rivalry between Vick and the Bucs' defense raged on through the meeting three weeks ago, with the Bucs shutting him down for roughly half of the game but Vick making the deciding plays at the beginning and end. Given the Bucs' dominance in the first two meetings with Vick and the Falcons' victories in the last two, it's fair to call that matchup a draw at this point.

Sunday's game could, at least momentarily, break the tie.

Since he did just enough to beat the Bucs three weeks ago (8-of-16, 147 yards, one touchdown, 73 rushing yards), Vick has had two strong games in a row, helping to extend Atlanta's winning streak to four games. He threw four touchdown passes and only one interception and rushed for a combined 173 yards in wins over the Giants and Saints.

Vick could be hitting his stride as the Falcons come down the stretch, which will only make that team more dangerous. However, the Bucs have demonstrated that they have the scheme and the team speed to keep Vick bottled up for an afternoon. Considering they are going to be locked in the same division as the Atlanta quarterback for years to come, they will need to do so again to regain control of the NFC South at some point and advance deep into the playoffs.

And that is the team's ultimate goal. Revenge would be nice. A playoff spot is still out there, even if the team is keeping its thoughts elsewhere. But, overall, the Bucs have their sights set higher. And it's a goal whose pursuit can start any week, regardless of the current playoff situation.

"There are some things obviously we have got to clean up to be a championship team, let alone a playoff team," said Gruden. "That's our goal, to once again return to a championship status and we realize we have some areas that have to be improved and by God, we'll do that."

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