DE Marcus Jones tightened up the sack race with DT Warren Sapp by recording the Bucs' lone takedown
In the shortest of terms, it meant a subdued locker room and an uncomfortable trip back to Tampa. In the longer view, it means another obstacle in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' playoff chase.
Tampa Bay lost 13-10 to the Chicago Bears on Sunday, falling to a 2-8 opponent whom they had previously beaten 41-0 in Tampa. Of course, nobody in the Bucs' locker room considered it an easy task to beat Chicago again; however, as a division game late in November, they did believe that it was a very significant contest.
The Bucs will resume their quest for the postseason next Sunday with a visit from the 7-4 Buffalo Bills and Head Coach Tony Dungy believes his team will move on and focus on the task at hand. Still, even Dungy admitted that the loss to Chicago would have an impact on the rest of the season.
"You can't sit there and dwell on it," said Dungy. "We've got five games left, and we're pretty much going to have to run the table and win them all, I think. So it's difficult, because we needed this division win and we didn't get it. But we will still be playing tomorrow."
Is it really necessary to run the table, as Dungy mused just after the game on Sunday? Let's examine that and some other issues impacted by the loss at Soldier Field.
Sunday's game at Chicago means…
…Tampa Bay would be well served to win four of its last five games, though a 3-2 mark down the stretch won't necessarily eliminate the team.
At 6-5, the Bucs could finish 11-5 if they run the table as Dungy suggested or 10-6 with one loss and 9-7 with two. Last season, four teams made the playoffs with records of 9-7 or worse, including a pair of 8-8 teams (Dallas and Detroit) in the NFC. One of those four teams, however, was a division winner (Seattle, AFC West Champs at 9-7).
In fact, at least two 9-7 teams have made the playoffs every season since 1993, and at least one in the NFC every season since 1992. However, it's important to note that not every 9-7 team has made the playoffs in that span. In 1996, for instance, 9-7 Minnesota went to the dance but 9-7 Washington stayed home since its conference record was two games worse than the Vikings. It's too early to determine tiebreakers with all of Tampa Bay's potential opponents, but the Bucs are 4-3 in their division and 5-4 in the NFC.
On the other hand, the last 10-6 teams to miss the playoffs were Philadelphia and San Francisco in 1991. Eight NFC teams finished with double-digit wins that year. Perhaps Dungy is mindful of a similarly top-heavy standings this season when he predicts the need to win out. There are currently seven NFC teams with a record better than Tampa Bay's 6-5.
No team with 11 wins has missed the playoffs since Denver in 1985, when there was one less Wild Card awarded. No NFC team with 11 wins has not been invited to the postseason since the AFL-NFL merger.
…the Bucs' will have to hear about the 'cold weather problem' for at least another month.
Dungy could pinpoint many reasons for the Bucs' loss in Chicago, but the temperature was not among them. Since the game started with the thermometer hovering around 37 degrees Fahrenheit, Sunday's game fell within the parameters of that infamous Tampa Bay note: the team has never won a game in which the temperature at kickoff is below 40 degrees.
The Bucs' mark in that situation is now 0-18, though only three of those games (including one postseason contest) have come since Dungy took over in 1996.
"I think anyone who talks about the weather today really does a disservice to the Bears," said Dungy in his postgame address. "I wouldn't taint their victory with any talk about the weather. Conditions were very nice out there, and we just didn't get the job done.
"I don't know about the first 15 or 16 (cold weather games) because I wasn't here, but I know about this one - they outplayed us and got the turnovers. Whether it was 30 degrees or 80 degrees, they outplayed us today."
The Bucs will likely get another crack at putting that note to rest in just a few weeks. The team ends the regular season with a December 24 game at Green Bay. It would be surprising to find Lambeau Field above freezing on Christmas Eve day.
…Tampa Bay simply must win the turnover battle in the coming games.
Not that the Buccaneers needed any convincing, but Sunday's game was a painfully clear reminder of how important turnovers are to victory. When the Bucs beat Chicago 41-0 in September, Tampa Bay forced four turnovers and committed none, scoring 17 points off its takeaways. In Chicago, the Bucs turned the ball over three times and took it away just once (on a fourth-down interception that would have given the Bucs possession even on an incompletion).
The Bears scored their last 10 points courtesy of turnovers. Chicago, which hasn't scored an offensive touchdown against the Buccaneers in its last 18 quarters got their 13 points on Sunday in this manner: a field goal on a 24-yard drive following a short punt into the wind, an interception return for a touchdown and a field goal on a 33-yard drive following a fumble.
"In the past, when we played them, they've turned the ball over against us and we haven't," said Dungy. "That was the difference today."
RB Warrick Dunn put it even more succinctly: "Turnovers lose games."
…the Bucs scoring average dipped, but the team is still on pace to break the team record.
The Bucs now have 262 points through 11 games, a pace that would lead to 381 points by the end of the season. Tampa Bay's franchise record for a single season is 335 points, posted in 1984.
In the final five weeks, Tampa Bay has to play the league's second and 11th-best scoring defenses (Miami and Buffalo, respectively), but they also face the team ranked 21st (Dallas) and the team ranked last (St Louis). The Bucs need to average just 14.8 points per game down the stretch to break the record.
…the team might need to concentrate on getting scores out of QB Shaun King.
King, the Bucs' second-year signal-caller, has started 16 regular season games in his NFL career now. In six of those, he has thrown at least two touchdown passes. The Bucs won all six. In six of the other contests, King has thrown one touchdown pass, and Tampa Bay has a respectable 4-2 mark in those games. However, in the four games in which King has started and not thrown a touchdown pass, Tampa Bay is 0-4.
King did run one into the end zone against the Bears on Sunday, but the passing game netted just 91 gross yards and no touchdowns. Dungy knew his team was struggling to throw the ball all day.
"They did a pretty good job of covering and they had some blitzes going, so Shaun really had to scramble around a lot and look for people," said Dungy. "We didn't hit many balls up the field, especially. It was tough throwing the ball when we were going in one direction (due to the wind), so for two quarters I thought the DBs could sit down on people and make it tough throwing that way. But when we had the wind, we didn't take advantage of it as well as we would have liked."
…the sack race between Warren Sapp and Marcus Jones has grown tighter.
For the second straight game, the Bucs' usually ferocious pass rush managed just one sack. Last week, it belonged to Sapp; on Sunday, it was Jones that had the team's lone tally.
So Sapp remains at 11.5 sacks, one below his career high, and Jones moves up to 11.0, already his single-season best. Both are within easy striking distance of the individual single-season record for Tampa Bay, set at 13 by Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon way back in 1977. In a virtual heat, it's a good bet that both Sapp and Jones will surpass Selmon, but who will get there first?
…the Bucs are no longer undefeated on November 19!
Hey, we told you these were issues large and small. Going into Sunday's game in Chicago, November 19 had been one of the kindest boxes on the calendar to the Tampa Bay franchise, as the Bucs were 3-0 all-time on that date. One of those wins even came in Chicago, a 32-31 thriller in 1989.