Even if Tampa Bay advances past Washington in the first round of the playoffs, Saturday’s contest could be fullback Mike Alstott’s final game at Raymond James Stadium.

Alstott, who turned 32 last month and is in his 10th season in the NFL, is contemplating retiring at the end of the 2005 season. The “A-Train” is focused on making sure his career and his team’s season last past Saturday, which is when the 11-5 Bucs will host the 10-6 Redskins in an NFC Wild Card Playoff contest.

“It’s a decision that will be determined later,” Alstott said of his possible retirement at season’s end. “We have Washington coming into our house, and they’re a very good football team. That’s a subject that will be discussed later.”

Alstott is arguably the face of the Buccaneers. He’s played in 142 games (122 starts) and worked his way into the franchise record books by scoring a franchise-best 68 touchdowns, 55 of which came on running plays.

The 6-foot-1, 248-pound Alstott’s 4,917 rushing yards rank second-best in club history behind James Wilder. A six-time Pro Bowler, Alstott has also hauled in 284 career passes for 2,199 yards and 13 touchdowns.

If Tampa Bay defeats Washington, it will have to beat Chicago the following week and have either Carolina or the New York Giants go into Seattle and beat the Seahawks in order for the Bucs to host the NFC Championship Game at Ray-Jay. Of course, if the Bucs lose to the Redskins, the “A-Train’s” great ride in the NFL could come to an end.

While some aren’t ready for No. 40 to call it quits, Alstott considers himself fortunate to have played as long as he has, especially when reflecting on the career-threatening neck injury he sustained in Week 3 of the 2003 regular season when he violently collided with wide receiver Joe Jurevicius’ knee in a game vs. the Carolina Panthers.

Alstott underwent season-ending surgery to repair his injured neck several weeks after sustaining that injury, and while that injury cost him his season and derailed his role in head coach Jon Gruden’s offense for a while, Alstott took something positive away from what was a negative experience.

“I spoke to the team when I was hurt in ’03, and I talked them a little bit about not taking it for granted because you never know when it might be your last play or game,” said Alstott. “That was when I was injured. Even though I’m healthy now and playing, you never know, ‘Could this be the last game or my last play?’ Nobody knows. Nobody knows how long you’re available to play this game. You just have to be ready and have fun. I’ve had a great time this year, and I’m still having a great time. This team is having a great time. We’re doing a lot of good things on the football field. As a unit, we’re a close team, and we enjoy being out here with each other.”

No matter how Tampa Bay’s season ends this year, Alstott will go down as one of the best Bucs of all time. He’s looked like the “A-Train” of old this season by rushing for six touchdowns and hauling in 25 passes for 222 yards and one touchdown.

He’s left Bucs fans with a plethora of memories, ranging from him suiting up in the ol’ orange and white Bucco Bruce uniform during his rookie season in 1996, to him bulling his way over defenders en route to being shown on the highlight reels on ESPN, to scoring the first touchdown in franchise history in Super Bowl XXXVII.

While his career could come to an end as soon as Saturday or as late as February, when Super Bowl XL is played in Detroit, Alstott plans to add a few more memories to the highlight reel before it’s all said and done.

“You always soak them in, and I realized that after I was hurt in ’03,” said Alstott. “Every time you walk out of the tunnel, introductions or not, you never know what’s going to happen. You never know if you’re going to be able to put your helmet and shoulder pads on again and go out there and play. I walk out of that tunnel very proud and excited.”

Bucs Preparing For Redskins, Playoffs
Tampa Bay took the practice field Tuesday in preparation for the Washington Redskins, who will invade Raymond James Stadium on Saturday to clash with the Bucs in the first round of the playoffs.

Some Bucs players, including linebackers Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles, fullback Mike Alstott, defensive ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires, and cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, have been in this position before. The Bucs have, after all, been to the playoffs six times over the past nine years.

However, there are several Bucs players who will make their playoff debuts on Saturday, including quarterback Chris Simms, running back Cadillac Williams, tight end Alex Smith and tight end Dan Buenning.

That said, the younger Bucs players are following the veterans’ lead in terms of how to go about preparing to play in the playoffs.

“They can kind of show us the way,” Simms said of the veterans. “Of course, it’s a shorter week, but again, we have a lot of guys that have playoff experience, so we’ll be able to go to them for any advice. I think the most important thing, like I said, let’s not make too big of a deal of it. Let’s just play football. This is just Week 18 in our minds. We are just going to try and keep going and try to win each game.”

That calm, cool and collected attitude has the Bucs preparing with a quiet confidence this week. Whether you’re a rookie or a veteran, Tampa Bay’s locker room knows what’s at stake from this point forward.

“You don’t want to get too tight for these types of games,” said Smith. “When you play tight it will affect your play. Guys just want to go out loose. We’ve been loose all season. We know what we’re capable of and that’s what we’re going to do this week.”

Some of the players are having a tough time containing their enthusiasm for Saturday’s playoff game at Raymond James Stadium.

“I’m just ready to play. I’m excited,” said Williams. “Just thinking about it – if we win three we go to the Super Bowl – has got me fired up. I’m looking forward to it.”

Just because you’re a veteran doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve gotten a lot of post-season experience. Take WR Joey Galloway, for instance. He’s played in just two playoff games in 11 seasons in the NFL.

“I’ve barely experienced it myself,” Galloway said when asked if the younger players could lean on him for some advice when it comes to preparing for the playoffs. “Let’s just play. You know, we’ve got to go out execute just like we always do. It’s for higher stakes now but the game plan’s the same. We’ve just got to go out and execute.”

The fact that Galloway has participated in just two post-season games during an impressive 11-year career has given some Bucs an extra sense of appreciation for what they’ve accomplished this season and the journey they’re about to embark on.

“I know a couple of people in the league who I’m good friends with and they’ve been playing four or five years and haven’t even gotten to the playoffs yet,” said Williams. “This is my first year and I have an opportunity to make the playoffs so I’m going to seize the moment. I’m looking forward to it.”

At the conclusion of Tuesday’s practice at One Buc Place, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden shared the message he is trying to convey to his players as they prepare to clash with the Redskins in the playoffs.

“I think any time you enter the playoffs, the first thing I always try to do is explain to everyone that this is sudden-death,” said Gruden. “If you win, you continue; if you lose, the season’s over. We don’t want to have that loser’s mentality about, ‘Gee, we overachieved in some people’s eyes,’ or, ‘Hey, we’ve had a good year.’ Baloney. You’re not playing in this organization for any other reason than to compete for championships and we want to make the most of our opportunities. When you get to the playoffs, I think that’s the mindset you’ve got to have.”

Home Sweet Home
Tampa Bay compiled an impressive 6-2 record at home during the 2005 regular season. The Bucs are an impressive 4-1 all-time at home in the playoffs, including 2-0 in post-season play at Raymond James Stadium. They plan to continue their winning ways at home on Saturday vs. the Redskins.

“There’s no other place I’d rather play than in Tampa at Raymond James,” said Bucs defensive end Greg Spires. “I’m happy for the fans that get to see us. After a disappointing year last year, they deserve it and we deserve it.”

If the Bucs defeat the Redskins, they will travel to Chicago to take on the Bears at 4:30 PM on Sat., Jan. 14.

Quote Of The Day
Gruden on if it’s all about having fun in the playoffs

“I don’t get into the philosophy of it all, really. We’ve worked hard and paid quite a price to get to this position, and you want to be at your best. You’ve got to really concentrate. Preparation’s important. You want to have fun no matter what wave of life you’re in, but you want to take this seriously. This is business; this is why we play the game. This is why they play the regular season, to see who gets to compete for the championship. We’ve got a lottery ticket and at least we have an opportunity. We’ll see what we do with it.”

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