This time last year, Tampa Bay didn’t really have anything to play for besides pride. But the Bucs have rebounded from their 4-12 outing in 2006, posting an 8-4 mark with four games to play in the 2007 season.
The Bucs need just one win or losses by the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints to win the NFC South division title for the second time in three seasons.
Tampa Bay has the opportunity to accomplish that feat and secure a playoff berth and home post-season game with a win in Houston against the 5-7 Texans on Sunday.
The Bucs would rather celebrate the division title with a win than earn the playoff berth by default.
“It definitely helps,” Bucs running back Earnest Graham said of earning a division title with a win. “We don’t have to worry about what other teams do if we just go out and win this game. We’re going to go out there and try to do that.”
Unless they have a collapse of epic proportion, the Bucs likely will win the NFC South division this year. Few pundits predicted such a successful season for the Buccaneers, but an interesting trend in the NFC South division tells another story.
The last four NFC South division winners finished in last place in the division the previous season. Tampa Bay, which finished in last place with a 4-12 record in 2006, has positioned itself to extend that NFC South trend to five straight seasons.
With the division title theirs for the taking, some are wondering if the Bucs should rest starting quarterback Jeff Garcia (back bruise) for one more week and play backup QB Luke McCown in his place since McCown performed well en route to a 27-23 win over the Saints.
However, with so much on the line, including a division title, playoff berth and possibly a bye week in the playoffs, Garcia, who was limited in practice on Wednesday, will play if he feels he’s healthy enough to go.
"I think we really have to see where we stand as far as the team is concerned,” Garcia said. “I know that if things do workout to where we do clinch our division and we are in a position to be that third or fourth team, we want to be the No. 3 team. That would depend on what happens with Seattle in the next couple of weeks. We want to continue to do the necessary things to win football games and granted that’s not to say – we saw what Luke was able to do this weekend and keep the ball moving in the right direction – the way our team is playing we have the opportunity to win on any given week. That’s not to say who is at the quarterback position, but I feel like right now I want to concentrate on being back there for this week and for every single week we have left in this season. Coach [Gruden] will make that determination when he feels the time is right as to where we are in the standings and what we have to look forward to."
Garcia has played an integral role in Tampa Bay’s success this season, completing 64.5 percent of his passes for 2,135 yards and tossing 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.
McCown said Garcia should be play in Houston if he’s deemed healthy.
“One game that I played in doesn’t outweigh what Jeff has done all year,” said McCown. “Are you kidding me? Jeff is the reason why we are where we are. He’s the starter of this football team and when he’s ready to play he’ll be playing.”
Should Tampa Bay win the NFC South division title, it will be the franchise’s sixth division title and the team’s third under head coach Jon Gruden.
In fact, Gruden will have won five division titles in his 10 seasons as a head coach in the NFL with the 2007 NFC South division championship.
But Tampa Bay’s mindset at this point is that it has not won anything this season. The Bucs believe they must defeat the Texans in order to win the division.
A win on Sunday would not only give them the NFC South division title, it would give Tampa Bay its fifth straight win. The Buccaneers have only put together a five-game winning streak three times in their 32-year history.
The Bucs won five straight games in 1979 and 1997. The last time they had a five-game winning streak in the regular season was 2002, which was the year the Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII.
Winning is something the Bucs can definitely get used to, especially for the players that suffered through the team’s 4-12 season a year ago.
“For us that were here last year no one wants to go through that again and no one really enjoys that, which is obvious,” said Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. “Winning is a lot better and I just don’t feel like losing anymore quite frankly. So as long as we continue to come out here and work as hard as we can I don’t see any reason why we can’t continue to build on what we have done so far.”
A playoff berth in 2007 would mark just the 10th time the Buccaneers have played in the post-season in 32 seasons.
In addition, Tampa Bay has a chance to produce a winning record on the road this season after going 1-7 away from Raymond James Stadium in 2006. With a win in Houston, the Bucs would improve their overall road record to 4-3.
The Bucs’ final road contest is in San Francisco, where Tampa Bay has posted an overall record of 1-10. However, the Bucs appear to have a decent chance of getting that monkey off of their back since the 3-9 49ers have posted a 1-4 record at home this year.
There’s still a slight chance Tampa Bay could earn one of the top two playoff seeds in the NFC, which comes with a bye week in the first round of the post-season followed by a home playoff contest.
“It’s a great feeling because we’ve been on the other side of it, which is not much fun,” said Graham. “Every game is a huge game, and we’re working toward our goal, which is to be the best team at the end of the year. It’s a great feeling this time of year to be playing meaningful football.”
In order for the Bucs to earn the No. 2 playoff seed and a bye week, they would need to win their final four regular season games against Houston, Atlanta, San Francisco and Carolina, all of whom have a combined record of 16-32.
Four more wins would give Tampa Bay a 12-4 regular season record, which would match the franchise’s best since the Bucs went 12-4 in 2002, which was Gruden’s first season with the team.
But the Bucs would also need some help. The 10-2 Green Bay Packers would have to lose two of their final four regular season games, which would give both teams a 12-4 record but could give the Bucs the bye week because they could win the tiebreaker with the Packers.
“You’re playing for a lot,” said Gruden. “There are a lot of things going on that we’re after. The bottom line is we better concentrate on one snap at a time. If we can do that, and we can win one game we all know it will be an exciting game to win.”
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