The last thing Warren Sapp and the Bucs expect is a Lions team that will go down without a fight
In 1998, the 3-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, reeling from an ugly loss at New Orleans, faced a 7-0 Minnesota team. And won.
In 2000, the 3-4 Bucs, coming off a two-touchdown loss at home to Detroit, faced a 7-0 Minnesota team. And won.
A year later, Tampa Bay is again 3-4, but there is no undefeated squad waiting to invade Raymond James Stadium and push the Bucs into the underdog role that seems to get them motivated at midseason. Instead, the Buccaneers must hit the road, traveling to Detroit to face the NFL's only winless team.
The Pontiac Silverdome may be the den of the Lions, but the Bucs see it as a snake pit. It's safe to say that overconfidence will not be a problem this weekend, because Tampa Bay views the 0-7 Lions as a formidable foe. Memories of giving the Minnesota Vikings (0-2 at the time) and the Tennessee Titans (0-3) their first wins of the season only reinforces that thought.
"They're 0-7 and they're desperate," said Bucs RB Warrick Dunn. "If you look at their record, it doesn't speak to how they're playing. Yeah, the first two weeks of the season they were playing horrible, but the last few weeks, they've been in every football game. They were playing hard and playing well but they lost the game at the end. Actually, they're probably due."
Detroit opened the season with a 28-6 loss at Green Bay, where the Packers rarely lose, then played the infamous seven-interception game at Cleveland to fall 24-14 to the Browns. After that, they ran into the St. Louis Rams flying circus at its peak, falling 35-0 in a Monday night rout that helped cement the 2001 reputations for both teams.
However, as Dunn mentioned, there have been nothing but close losses for the Lions since, beginning with a 31-26 defeat at Minnesota in which the visitors mounted a furious rally. A last-minute field goal loss to Tennessee and a four-point defeat by the Cincinnati Bengals preceded last weekend's 21-13 falling at San Francisco, where the Lions trailed the 5-2 49ers by just one point in the fourth quarter.
There is the sense that the Lions are putting together most of a winning effort without quite finishing it off, and that such a finish will inevitably come. In fact, the Lions' disastrous start might make them more likely to force the issue, rather than playing it safe.
That's the worst team you can play against, somebody with their backs against the wall and nothing to lose," said S Dexter Jackson. "They could come out and do a lot of gimmick plays, trick plays and just play football. We're looking for certain things, and they could come out and say, 'What the heck? We've got nothing to lose. Let's try something different.'"
Couple that with the fact that no team has gone through a 16-game season without a victory and you have the basis for the Bucs' concern.
"I don't know if there's ever been a winless team in the NFL, so they're going to win a game eventually," said DE Steve White. "We just have to make sure it's not against us."
White says that the Buccaneers should have no problem maintaining respect for the Lions, because they get to see much more than just a zero-dash-seven all week. They get to see film that shows a still-motivated team.
"Those guys get paid, too, and they're not by any means giving up," he said. "You can look on film and those guys are still into it. They've been in the game in the fourth quarter in several games. They're not just a sloppy team that's getting blown out. They're a good team that has had some things go against them so far. The biggest worry would be overconfidence. We need to go in there with a healthy respect for them and I think we'll do that."
One thing that has definitely gone against the Lions is the weekly injury report, which has read more like the first column of the depth chart in recent weeks. Detroit's strong effort in San Francisco last Sunday was put together without the contributions of RB James Stewart, LB Stephen Boyd, G Stockar McDougle, WR Herman Moore and DT Luther Elliss, all injured, among others.
"You're looking at their record and you're thinking they are desperate," said DT Warren Sapp. "This is a good ball club. Make no mistake about that, they are a good ball club. They are depleted by some injuries in their receiving corps and in some other areas. But this is a good team that always matches well against us and it has always been a hard fought ball game, where it's going to come down to the fourth quarter, where someone is going to make a play and win it."
The Bucs actually had a rare, blowout road victory the last time they traveled to Detroit, winning 31-10 in Week Three of 2001. Of course, the Lions then came back with the aforementioned 28-14 victory in Tampa to run its record to 5-2 at the time. There wasn't much carry from one month to another last season, and there won't be much from last Sunday to this one in 2001.
"The past never equals the future," said Sapp. "Whether it's an 0-7 team or a 3-4 team, it's going to be a 60-minute game and who wants it. That's what it is all going to boil down to: Who is going to make the fewest mistakes within that 60 minutes to get the win?"
And, with all that, if you still think the Bucs might take the 0-7 Lions lightly, contemplate Sapp's closing remarks on the issue:
"This might be the most important game I've played in the league in seven years."