Both the Bucs and Panthers have found new contributors in the face of injuries, such as Tampa Bay's Torrie Cox
It was the last few hours of the work week in most offices, but when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took the field on Wednesday afternoon, their preparations for the Carolina Panthers were just beginning.
The Bucs followed a normal practice-and-meeting schedule on Wednesday and will do the same on Friday. Even on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, the Bucs will have meetings and a walk-through in the morning and a full, two-hour practice in the middle of the day, though they will send the players home at 1:30 p.m.
The Panthers are surely working just as hard.
Though both teams are below .500, the pride of the past two NFC champions is still on the line, as are some remaining playoff hopes. Buccaneer players and coaches are sure to enjoy time with their families on Thursday afternoon and evening, but they are not losing focus on their joint task this weekend.
"This is a big game for us," said defensive end Greg Spires. "We've got to have this game. Unfortunately we've had a few injuries or whatever, but we're still fighting and they're in the same boat and this is a big game."
The Bucs, at 4-6, and the Panthers, at 3-7, have indeed endured significant injury woes. The Bucs' medical issues are well-known to Tampa Bay fans; Carolina is trying to cover the losses of key players such as defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, wide receiver Steve Smith and running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster.
"I know they can feel our pain from a year ago knowing how long the season is when you win the Super Bowl and try to come back and repeat," said safety Dwight Smith. "It's tough because injuries and things like that change the whole season."
But, like the Buccaneers, the Panthers have rallied as new contributors have emerged. Where the Bucs have the likes of Brian Griese, Michael Clayton and Torrie Cox, the Panthers have Nick Goings (NFC Offensive Player of the Week), Keary Colbert and Chris Gamble. Last weekend, Goings ran for 121 yards and three touchdowns and Gamble racked up seven tackles, an interception and three passes defensed in a 35-10 win over Arizona.
And, as Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden points out, the Panthers' star power hasn't been completely snuffed out.
"They're coming off two impressive victories and they've still got a lot of good players – great players," said Gruden. "I see [Julius] Peppers and [Mike] Rucker and [Jake] Delhomme. [Muhsin] Muhammad's having a great year. They have a lot of pride and they're very physical – they're still a very good football team."
Gruden has been saying the same thing about his team during the Bucs' rebound from an 0-4 start to the season. The Bucs have managed to stay alive in the postseason hunt despite that rough month, but their hopes would take a serious blow with a loss at Carolina this weekend. That's fitting, since the Bucs-Panthers series has been a good barometer for the two teams' postseason fortunes since they were put together in the NFC South.
In 2002, the Bucs won both games, including a very tight, 12-9 game in Charlotte, and went on to eventual Super Bowl nirvana. Last year, the Panthers won a pair of nail-biters against the Bucs and eventually succeeded Tampa Bay as the conference Super Bowl reps.
Those four games alone would make Sunday's game an intense one, even if nothing was on the line.
"They play hard," said Smith. "Special teams play hard. They have guys who compete, and you're always going to play [hard] against a team like that."
So can you throw out the records?
"I pretty much throw the records out every game," said Gruden. "Some people are better than me at picking games. You get what you deserve. If you go out and play well, you've got a chance to win. If you're sloppy, you're turning the ball over, you're not converting your third downs, etc., you're going to lose. This is a game that's going to be won by somebody who deserved to win it."
Ivy Hurt in Practice
The Buccaneers started the day with five players on their initial injury report but ended it with six, thanks to a practice-field mishap suffered by cornerback Corey Ivy.
Ivy, one of the team's top special teams players, sustained a knee injury during Wednesday afternoon's workout and is now considered questionable to play in Sunday's game. Gruden indicated that the team would have a better feel for Ivy's condition on Thursday after further tests.
Four of the five players listed on the original report are considered probable: LB Keith Burns (hamstring), CB Mario Edwards (chest), center Sean Mahan (shoulder) and safety Dwight Smith (knee). Safety Jermaine Phillips, who had surgery last week to repair a forearm fracture, will not play. He and Mahan were the only two players to be held out of the full-team portions of practice, though Ivy later joined them on the sideline.
Gruden previously indicated that, Mahan were unable to play, starting right guard Matt Stinchcomb would be the primary candidate to move to center.
The Panthers started the week with a fairly lengthy injury report. However, of the 11 players on Carolina's list, only three failed to practice in full on Wednesday: LB Dan Morgan, TE Kris Mangum and QB Jake Delhomme.
Morgan, the usual starter at middle linebacker, has been ruled out of Sunday's game with a concussion. He has been replaced in the starting lineup by Vinny Ciurciu, who spent eight weeks with the Buccaneers as a special-teamer last season. Mangum, the Panthers' starting tight end, is listed as questionable with an ankle injury; he started last week against Arizona but didn't play two weeks ago due to a neck injury. Delhomme, who has started and finished every game this year, is probable with a thumb injury.
Also listed as questionable for the Panthers are RB Brad Hoover (hip), K John Kasay (calf) and DE Kemp Rasmussen (neck).
An Immediate Opportunity?
First-year running back Ian Smart, who has been with the Buccaneers since mid-September, practiced for the first time as a member of the 53-man roster on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, Smart was promoted from the practice squad, taking the roster spot of IR-bound Anthony McFarland.
While young players promoted from the practice squad sometimes find themselves as game-day inactives for several week, the Bucs might find a way to get Smart involved in the game plan as soon as this weekend.
"We like him," said Gruden. "He's very quick, thick and quick. He's a good kid, he knows our stuff. He's got a chance. We're going to try to work him and there is a chance he could be up helping us out this week."