After starting the season off with a 0-4 record, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won five of their last eight games and have put themselves in position to realistically talk about making the playoffs.

But talking about the playoffs won’t actually get them there. The 5-7 Bucs have little to no room for error over their final four regular season games and will likely have to defeat the 9-3 San Diego Chargers on Sunday in order to keep their post-season aspirations alive.

Had they not made such costly mistakes in road games against St. Louis and Carolina, Tampa Bay would likely be sitting pretty in the NFC playoff race and might even be talking about winning its division instead of securing a Wild Card berth.

“There are people inside our building who think we’ve played well enough to very easily say we could be 7-1 in our last eight games, had we done a couple little things better,” said Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. “So we think the execution has improved over the last two months.”

The NFC playoff race is wide open. Philadelphia (11-1), Atlanta (9-3), Green Bay (7-5) and Seattle (6-5) currently lead their divisions. The race for the two NFC Wild Card berths is tight, with Minnesota (7-5) and St. Louis (6-6) currently occupying those playoffs spots.

Tampa Bay, Carolina, Detroit and Chicago each have 5-7 records, and if Dallas defeats Seattle on Monday night, it too will have a 5-7 record and will stay in the hunt for the sixth and final seed in the NFC playoff race.

Because St. Louis defeated Tampa Bay head to head in Week 6, the Rams own a tie breaker over the Bucs, which essentially means the Rams have a two-game lead over the Bucs with four left to play.

However, since St. Louis has a tough remaining schedule with road games against Carolina (5-7) and Arizona (4-8), and home contests against Philadelphia (11-1) and the New York Jets (9-3), Tampa Bay feels it can beat out the Rams for a playoff spot as long as it treats each of its remaining four games as playoff contests, just as the Bucs did Sunday en route to a 27-0 shutout win over the first-place Atlanta Falcons.

“I think you almost have to perform in this league that way every week,” Gruden said. “If you don’t play at a high level, you make a few mistakes, we found out you’ll lose. For us, and our playoff status, it is almost like we have advanced to another round of the playoffs. I don’t care who makes the playoffs; it is a single-elimination tournament. Just because you make the wild card or you get home field advantage, doesn’t guarantee anything. I think the state of mind in terms of your preparation, in terms of play-by-play mental status. I think you have to look at it that way.”

Before they think playoffs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers must first think about finding a way to win a tough road contest next Sunday in San Diego against the 9-3 Chargers, who has won six straight games and are 5-1 at home. But in order to defeat the Chargers, who have a two-game division lead over the Denver Broncos, the Bucs know they’ll have to play relatively mistake-free football, just as they did Sunday against the Falcons.

“I feel like we have squandered some games,” said Gruden. “As a coach I have to take responsibility for that, but you have to continue to move forward. We’re confident in our abilities to compete and play with anyone. We beat a good team yesterday. We’ll see where we go this week with San Diego.”

To make matters worse, the Bucs will play Sunday’s contest on the West Coast, where the Pewter Pirates haven’t fared well in their past two contests against Oakland and San Francisco. In fact, the Bucs were outscored by a total of 54-27 in those two losing efforts.

Because of their recent West Coast woes, Gruden has decided to change the team’s travel schedule up a bit by not changing it at all, meaning the Bucs will leave for San Diego on Saturday, which is a day later than they left for San Francisco and Oakland.

“I felt like the dead time in the hotel was not beneficial,” Gruden said of the reasoning behind having the Bucs leave for San Diego on Saturday as opposed to Friday. “All the time you get to get acclimated to the time zone clearly did not work. We have not lost a lot of games by more than seven or eight points that I can remember here. San Francisco beat us soundly and I felt Oakland probably played the best game in the season against us. We are going to change it up a little bit and hopefully that will stimulate our guys somewhat and we will see what happens.

Normally Tampa Bay wouldn’t be looking forward to traveling west for a regular season game, but this one might be different given the fact that the last time the Buccaneers played at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego was in Super Bowl XXXVII, where they defeated the Raiders 48-21.

“You cannot help that,” Gruden said when asked about returning to the site of Super Bowl XXXVII. “Every time you watch San Diego on tape and see that scoreboard you remember playing in that stadium a couple of years ago. But I am not a real deep person. You have some memories but we are looking forward to going to play a really good team. They are clearly on a roll, these guys are good, well coached and playing with great confidence. It is a long trip. We have not played well on the west coast. Other than the Super Bowl we played poorly in Oakland (this season) and in San Francisco last season. That is something that I am looking at; maybe changing the travel schedule or getting new flight attendants whatever we can do to straighten ourselves out on the road. We have to play better across the country.”

If the Bucs can find a way to defeat the Chargers, they’ll stand a good chance of sneaking their way into the playoffs with two of their three remaining games at home against New Orleans (4-8) and Carolina (5-7), and a road trip to Arizona (4-8) on Jan. 2.

INJURY UPDATE:
The Bucs appear to be in good shape heading into their big game against the Chargers.

Tight end Ken Dilger (strained ribs), long snapper Dave Moore (ankle sprain), running back Michael Pittman (left knee bruise), kicker Jay Taylor (calf strain), safety Dexter Jackson (hamstring), defensive end Greg Spires (knee sprain) and defensive tackle Dewayne White are all probable for Sunday’s game in San Diego. Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips (forearm) has been ruled out of next Sunday’s contest.

TAYLOR MADE:
New Bucs kicker Jay Taylor made an impressive debut Sunday against the Falcons, going 2-of-2 on field goal attempts.

His first attempt of the game, which just happened to be his first field goal attempt in a regular season NFL contest was a 50-yarder. Not only did Taylor make the kick, but Bucs head coach Jon Gruden, who watched former Bucs K Martin Gramatica go 11-of-19 and arguably cost them two wins this season, credited Taylor for igniting his players and the fans at Raymond James Stadium.

“It’s not like it was one of the seventh wonders of the world,” Gruden said of Taylor’s 50-yard kick. “I saw a celebration at midfield. I have never seen that; where our whole team is out there rejoicing. I think it is great for our team to have confidence in that aspect of our play that has not been up to speed.”

Gruden said that after talking with Taylor about the 50-yard kick he didn’t hesitate to send the new kicker out on to the field to attempt it.

“I’m so sick of missing field goals,” said Gruden. “That feeling: ‘Can you do this?’ The optimistic, ‘Yes,’ the response he gave me was positive. He’s kicked the ball extremely well on the [practice] field and it was a good day. The wind was not a factor. And points are hard to get against Atlanta. They’re a good defensive team. A 10-point lead was well worth the risk.”

COX’S ROLE FOR SUNDAY’S GAME YET TO BE DETERMINED:
Bucs cornerback Torrie Cox was made inactive for Sunday’s game against the Falcons after he was arrested and charged with a DUI on Saturday morning. According to Bucs head coach Jon Gruden, the team has yet to decide on Cox’s status for next Sunday’s game in San Diego.

“I am not going to publicly comment on it,” said Gruden. “We are disappointed in what occurred. We will handle it internally. There are certain acts that you have to be very understanding and at the same time you have to be a disciplined football team. You have to be disciplined in society. We will handle that internally. He was inactive yesterday. His status will be updated later.”

QUOTE OF THE DAY:
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden on whether he’s feeling better about his team’s playoff chances after their 27-0 win over the Atlanta Falcons:

“I do not know. I just feel good about winning the game. I like the chances here in Tampa, other than the woodshed here, everything is getting better.”

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