LB Derrick Brooks doesn't care how the Bucs win
As is now common knowledge among Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans, one more win puts their team into the playoffs. Oakland Raider fans may have to work through a more complicated scenario for their team's playoff hopes, but they are certain that a win on Sunday is a necessary factor.
As for the players, the only scenarios they are contemplating are Ws or Ls in Oakland. Tampa Bay has gone from a precarious 3-4 to a very promising 9-4 with a team-record six-game winning streak, but nobody in the Buccaneer organization was looking that far ahead after the team's last loss on October 31. Without exception, Buccaneer players insist they are following the cliched advice of taking one game at a time.
"We're not really thinking about the playoffs," said G Frank Middleton on Wednesday afternoon. "It would be great to win (a playoff spot) now, but we're focusing on beating Oakland."
Never mind that those goals are actually one and the same. Tampa Bay would be treating this contest as a must-win even if a playoff spot wasn't imminent. "We realize that each game is more important than the game before," said LB Derrick Brooks. "That way, we take each game one at a time, just like we have for the last six weeks. And we're coming together as a team. We've been in some difficult situations, but we haven't panicked. We don't care how we do it, we're just interested in getting wins."
What that means this weekend is that Oakland must be treated as a topflight opponent, regardless of the team's 6-7 record. The Raiders have not lost a game by more than seven points all season and they have already defeated NFC Central opponents Minnesota and Chicago, while narrowly falling to the Packers in Green Bay. They are also in a more critical situation than the Buccaneers in terms of earning a playoff berth, another reason to expect a strong performance.
"I don't know about their situation," said LB Hardy Nickerson, "but they have a very good football team. They're a team that's been in every game and have gone down to the wire almost every week. They have won and lost a lot of games at the end. But we're in the driver's seat in terms of our own destiny. We have a lot of goals and one is to get into the playoffs. If we win this Sunday, we're in. That's enough incentive right there."
Nickerson, in fact, claims that the Buccaneers' focus is even more immediate than Sunday. "We take it one practice at a time, try to make every practice perfect," said Nickerson. "To a man in this locker room, we're looking at it that way. We're playing our best football right now and there's no reason to start looking down the road."
"A lot of guys around here have waited a long time for meaningful games in December," added DT Warren Sapp. "We're in the thick of it and we're enjoying it. But you can't play three games in one day. We're going to go to Oakland, try to get a win, then come back on Monday and get ready for the next game."
Head Coach Tony Dungy, of course, is pleased that his team has taken this approach, as he views the Raiders as a formidable opponent. "We know what they're capable of," said Dungy. "They have a very explosive offensive and we really have our work cut out for us to contain them. On defense, they're very similar to us. They have a lot of speed and quickness and they really hustle to the football. Their strong point on defense is forcing turnovers; they have a lot of big-play guys."
At 6-7, Oakland is two games out of a potential Wild Card spot in a complicated AFC picture that has four teams at 8-5 (Kansas City, Seattle, Buffalo and Miami) and another at 7-6 (New England). A loss on Sunday would probably be a fatal blow to Oakland's playoff hopes. With that in mind, it's fairly certain that the Raiders are focusing on Sunday just as intently as the Buccaneers.