Forget the pressure to avoid giving the Lions their first win - a loss to Detroit could make the Bucs' own playoff run come up short
When the Detroit Lions visit Raymond James Stadium this Sunday, they will, in effect, be chasing two Tampa Bay Buccaneers teams.
There is, of course, the current Buccaneers squad that needed a two-minute drive and a clutch Martin Gramatica field goal on November 11 to prevail 20-17 and keep the Lions winless on the season. Then there is the 1976 Buccaneers, the last NFL team to play an entire season without a victory.
That 0-14 season was Tampa Bay's franchise debut. The league expanded the schedule to 16 games in 1978 and no team since has recorded a season-long goose-egg. Most observers would agree that the '01 Lions are far more talented than that '76 Bucs squad, and an unlikely crew to go 0-16, but at 0-11 they are still staring at that possibility with five weeks to go.
And, as much as the Lions don't want to be the '76 Bucs, Tampa Bay does not want to be the 1986 Atlanta Falcons.
The last team to get this far into the season without a victory was the '86 Indianapolis Colts, with Head Coach Rod Dowhower at the helm through November. The Colts fired Dowhower and gave the reins to Ron Meyer on December 1, after Indy had limped to an 0-13 mark, and the team made a rather remarkable turnaround, winning its final three games.
And it was the Falcons, a team that finished with a respectable 7-8-1 mark, that gave Indianapolis its first win, falling 28-23 at home to the visiting Colts. Indy then went on to defeat Buffalo (4-12) and the Raiders (8-8) in Los Angeles. The Falcons had a new head coach when 1987 opened, with Marion Campbell replacing Dan Henning.
Therein lies the crucial difference between those Falcons and these Bucs: Tampa Bay isn't thinking about next year. The Bucs are walking a playoff tightrope, and there's no time to think about anything but the next step. Though 6-5 Tampa Bay currently holds the edge on the sixth playoff spot, a loss to the Lions would change all that, since the 6-5 Falcons play the 6-5 New Orleans Saints this weekend. Toss in the fact that Detroit is both a conference and a division foe, and this game means much more to the Buccaneers than a chance to avoid becoming a historical footnote.
"We have enough motivation in our season right now," said safety John Lynch. "Every game is just of paramount importance. If there is any positive to the way we started, it's the fact that you can't afford to overlook anyone.
"And that's certainly not the case (with Detroit). We have a great deal of respect for the Lions. All you have to do is watch them every week and they are in every football game. They took us down to the wire up there and we had to come on a two minute drive there at the end and Martin made a kick. We can't afford to feel like that and that's not the feeling in here."
It is that week-after-week competitiveness that has made Detroit's 0-11 mark so surprising. The 1986 Colts were beaten by two touchdowns or more in nine of those 13 season-opening losses; this year's Lions haven't lost by more than eight points since week three.
"They've played everyone tough," said Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy. "I think their last eight games have been one-score games. They just haven't gotten the right break at the right time or been able to finish people off. They're a good football team and they still have a lot of the guys that were on the playoff team a couple of years ago."
That would be the 1997 team, which finished 9-7 and lost to the Bucs in the NFC Wild Card round, in the last game played in Houlihan's Stadium. The Lions dropped to 5-11 the next year but were 8-8 in 1999 and 9-7 and just out of the playoffs in 2000, with much of the same crew. More ominously, the Lions have been the one division team that has not found playing in Raymond James Stadium particularly daunting. Detroit has won two of its three games in the Bucs' new home, not to mention its three previous regular-season games in Tampa before the new stadium was built.
Moreover, the Bucs have shown the same penchant for playing close games no matter the competition, just as they did in the Silverdome a month ago.
"They've been close every week just like us," said quarterback Brad Johnson. "We're 6-5. They've lost a bunch of games that came down to the final drive. Last week they had Chicago. Last time we were up there we had a barn-burner and beat them in the two-minute drill in the end of the game. They have a tenacious front four, front five. Some guys have been Pro Bowlers. They're very good on defense. They've stopped a lot of people. So we have our hands full this week."
Added defensive tackle Anthony McFarland: "They're a good football team, they just haven't been getting the breaks. If you don't get the breaks and other guys step up and make plays, it's tough to win. But everyone in here respects them because we had to go down and kick a field goal last time in their place. Their last eight games have been real close, just a play here or a play there."
By that logic, which seems to be the prevailing opinion in the Bucs' locker room, the Lions are bound to eventually make that extra play and win a game. That means there is no room for Tampa Bay to let its guard down one last time before the final stretch run.
"You have to expect that they are going to beat somebody," said Johnson. "Regardless if we're playing St. Louis away on Monday night, the best team in football at 9-2 or playing a team that's 0-11 it doesn't really matter. We want to play better football and find a way to win and at the end of the day that's all that matters, getting the win."
The unknown factor for the Lions, other than rookie Mike McMahon, who takes over for an injured Charlie Batch at quarterback, is how the their flirtation with 0-16 will affect the team's overall attitude. With little else to play for in the last month, is a winless team more likely to fold the tent when it falls behind in a game? Several recent Detroit comebacks would seem to be evidence to the contrary with this particular team.
"Sometimes that can be the case, but when you look at these guys, they have come on, they've played hard on special teams all the time, especially when Desmond Howard plays, and that usually can get a team going," said Dungy. "They've been down by big scores and come back. They were 16 points down to Green Bay. They were down to Arizona and had a chance to win at the end. So it's amazing what they've done. They have not thrown in the towel in any game we've seen."
Conversely, could the Lions' situation actually make them a more dangerous team, give them the proverbial 'nothing-to-lose' approach? That one the Bucs are willing to believe.
"Absolutely," said Lynch. "I think what we want to do is have that same attitude. We've got a lot on the line, but you can't play tight. You have to lay it on the line, trust your keys and make plays."
In the week leading up to the game, the Bucs can't avoid the fact that Detroit are 0-11, any more than the Lions can until that first 'W' is secured. Once the two teams have taken the field in Raymond James on Sunday, however, the records, as they say, will be tossed out the window. The Bucs have too many concerns of their own to treat this one lightly.
"It's a home game, a game that we've got to win, an NFC Central game, all of the tie-breaker ramifications," said Dungy. "It's a big game for us. We know what they're capable of, and if you look at their scores the last few weeks – they took Green Bay to the last play, took Chicago to the last play – we should be ready. Hopefully, we will be."