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WILL DECISION TO REST STARTERS COME BACK TO BITE THE BUCS? Much has been made of Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden's decision to rest some key players and starters over the final two weeks of the 2007 regular season.
The Bucs wrapped up the NFC South division title with a 37-3 win over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 15, which gave them an automatic home playoff game.
Tampa Bay went into San Francisco with the intention of winning the game, but Gruden had enough after watching quarterback Jeff Garcia take a beating and wide receiver Maurice Stovall and defensive end Greg White go down with injuries.
Gruden played mostly backups and the Bucs went on to lose to the 49ers, 21-19. With some starters not even getting to dress for the regular season finale vs. Carolina, Tampa Bay lost to the Panthers, 31-23, giving the Bucs a two-game losing streak heading into the playoffs.
Some suggest this decision will come back to bite the Bucs since they appear to be heading into the playoffs with little to no momentum. Others feel like the rest will do the Bucs some good in the playoffs.
But how do the Bucs players feel heading into Sunday's Wild Card playoff game vs. the Giants?
I surveyed the locker room this week and here is what some of the Bucs players said in response to Tampa Bay's two-game losing streak and Gruden's decision to rest some starters and key contributors.
Running back Michael Bennett "I think too much is made of that. Guys have been resting the last two weeks and our coaches have been smart. We got two guys – [linebacker] Cato June and [guard] Arron Sears – hurt against Carolina and they didn't play a lot. Some teams are fortunate enough to keep all of their guys healthy. We just played it smart. You always want to win, but to lose those last two games wasn't as meaningful as getting guys healthy. It's playoff time and we've got everybody back and ready to go."
Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud "You're not ever right. I think [former Dallas head coach and ESPN analyst] Bill Parcells said it best when I was watching Prime Time on ESPN. He said, ‘You're not ever right. If you rest guys and lose then you're stupid for losing your momentum and if you play guys and someone gets hurt than you're an idiot for not resting them.' There's no right way to do it. We just have to play well this Sunday. That's the key. If we don't play well we'll be blamed for resting too many guys and if we win then we're geniuses for resting guys."
Strong safety Jermaine Phillips "That's not an issue at all. Yeah, you'd like to have some wins going into the playoffs, but right now we're feeling good. This is a new season. It's no different than the preseason and regular season. Once the preseason is over you're not thinking about it. You're thinking about the regular season, or in this case the playoffs. We're in the tournament. We know it's a single elimination tournament and we're going to bring our ‘A' game each time."
Running back Michael Pittman "Every year is different. It's all about the mindset of the players. If you really want it bad enough you're going to get it and take it. What happened in the past is in the past. That's what we believe here. If you go out there and play your hardest and bring your ‘A' game you will win the game."
Defensive tackle Chris Hovan "Hindsight is always perfect. When you look back people say you should have done this or you should have done that. The fact of the matter is we're here and we earned the right to be here. You can say you lost two games and momentum, but momentum is being in the playoffs. Momentum is hosting a home game at 1:00 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium. That's momentum. As players, we have to go out there and set the tempo fast. We have to be fast and physical right from the beginning."
The players certainly don't sound like they disagreed with Gruden's game plan over the past two weeks, and it will be up to the players to prove he was right to rest them in the playoffs.
The one player that cannot afford to come out rusty vs. the Giants on Sunday is Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia.
The 37-year-old signal caller has not played much down the stretch, which is a concern. In fact, Garcia played in just one full game over the final six contests of the regular season and appeared in a total of eight quarters. He completed 29-of-49 (59.1 percent) of his passes and threw for 314 yards and tossed four touchdowns and two interceptions during that stretch.
The good news is Garcia has significant playoff experience. He even has a chance to become the first player in NFL history to defeat a team (the Giants) three times with three different teams in the post-season.
But is it possible for Garcia to come into a game of this magnitude and play exceptionally well after such limited playing time over the last six weeks of the season?
Bucs quarterback Luke McCown said the Bucs aren't worried about how Garcia is going to play vs. the Giants.
"I don't think anything should be made of it," said McCown. "If you stand out in practice and watch what Jeff has been doing he's as sharp as he's ever been here. It's about being a professional and it's about doing your job. No amount of time takes away from that. Jeff has been doing it for a long time. He can miss some time and come back and play really well and pick up where he left off."
McCown speaks from experience. After sitting on the bench for 10 straight weeks as Tampa Bay's third-string quarterback, McCown started vs. New Orleans in Week 13 in place of Garcia due to his back injury.
Despite the fact that it was his first start as a Buccaneer and the first time he had played in a regular season game since Week 1, McCown went on to complete 29-of-37 (78.3 percent) passes for 294 yards and toss two touchdowns and one interception en route to a thrilling 27-23 win over New Orleans.
Granted, New York's defense is much better than New Orleans' defensive unit, but the Bucs believe Garcia will benefit from the rest and play well vs. the Giants. They'll need him to if Tampa Bay is going to defeat New York and advance in the playoffs.
HOW MUCH MOMENTUM DO THE GIANTS HAVE ENTERING THE PLAYOFFS? There's no disputing the fact that New York's performance vs. the undefeated New England Patriots in a 38-35 loss last week was impressive and perhaps surprising.
That impressive outing has many convinced that the Giants are coming into Tampa with huge momentum.
I understand that the Patriots went 16-0 in the regular season, which is a significant feat, but am I the only one that's having a difficult time understanding how the Giants are bringing so much so-called momentum to Tampa Bay after a loss? The last time I checked almost doesn't count.
On the flip side of that topic, some pundits feel Tampa Bay has absolutely no momentum heading into the playoffs after losing two straight games to end the regular season. The Bucs elected to rest their starters down the stretch and lost their final two games as a result.
But if New York built so much momentum coming off a loss at home to New England, why wouldn't Tampa Bay be able to feel pretty good about itself after losing its final two regular season games by a total of 10 points while playing backups?
And for the record, both the Bucs and Giants enter the playoffs having lost two of their final three regular season games.
There aren't a lot of people giving Tampa Bay a chance to defeat New York on Sunday. My personal opinion is that you could state a very compelling case for either team winning this playoff game. However, it probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the Buccaneers, even after they've won the NFC South division and are getting set to host a Wild Card playoff game, aren't getting much respect from NFL pundits. The Bucs don't seem to mind, though.
"We've been dealing with a lot of doubters all year, but we know hat we have in this locker room and on this team," said Bucs strong safety Jermaine Phillips. "We're just going to continue to believe in ourselves and go out there and play ball. If we do that good things will happen. If you keep winning at some point you won't be flying under the radar anymore."
TEAMS DON'T FARE WELL AFTER LOSSES TO PATRIOTS Speaking New England, an interesting stat surfaced this week regarding the fact that the last seven teams to lose to the Patriots went on to lose their game the following week. This, of course, does not include the Giants, or at least not yet.
Let's take that a step further. It would actually be nine straight teams to lose the week after they played the Patriots had the Washington Redskins not defeated the New York Jets 23-20 in overtime on Nov. 4.
New England's opponents posted a combined 4-11 record in the week after they lost to the Patriots. Of those four wins, two of them, which were posted by Washington and Buffalo, respectively, came by a total of six points. The other two teams' wins were by 10 points each (by Cleveland and Dallas).
The Giants have won seven straight road games coming into Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium. Seven straight teams have lost their next game after losing to the Patriots this season. One of those streaks will come to an end on Sunday. The Bucs hope it's the former and not the latter.
2005 PLAYOFF LOSS STILL STINGS Tampa Bay's defense has carried the Buccaneers for years, but even the Bucs offense did their part to help the team win in the playoffs en route to raising the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XXXVII.
The Bucs offense currently ranks 18th in the NFL and will need to do its part to help the team advance in the post-season. That won't be easy against New York's seventh-ranked defense, which leads the league in sacks with 53.
Tampa Bay's offense let the team down in its last playoff game, which was played against Washington at Raymond James Stadium nearly two years ago.
The Bucs No. 1-ranked defense held the Redskins to a playoff-record low 120 yards of offense, yet Tampa Bay lost to Washington, 17-10.
Tampa Bay produced just 243 yards of offense and had three costly turnovers, including a fumble that the late Sean Taylor recovered and returned 51 yards for a touchdown, in its loss to Washington.
There are plenty of new faces on this year's Bucs team, but the players that were part of Tampa Bay's 2005 squad still have a sick feeling in their stomach from the way the offense performed in the playoffs two years ago.
"That factors into my mind a lot," said Bucs running back Michael Pittman. "That was a game we should have won, but we just didn't perform from an offensive standpoint. We had a couple of turnovers in that game and I remember Sean Taylor picked up one of those and returned it for a touchdown. We've got to eliminate plays like that. The Giants are playing great."
Although he did not actually play in that post-season contest due to injury, Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton is entering the playoffs for the first time in his career with a chip on his shoulder.
"I do (have a chip on my shoulder) just for the simple fact that I wasn't out there able to help my team," Clayton said of Tampa Bay's 17-10 loss to Washington. "As a competitor that's the worse thing, especially to see things go down the way they did. You want to be out there. It's a helpless feeling. I will be playing with a chip on my shoulder. A lot of guys here will. It's time to go to war. We respect the Giants, but we do not far them."
While hopeful that the offense can put more points on the board and play turnover-free football, Tampa Bay's defense, which ranked No. 2 overall in the NFL this season, knows it will have to play great again in order for the Bucs to defeat the Giants and their fourth-ranked ground attack.
"You've got to this time of year. It's crucial," said Bucs defensive tackle Chris Hovan. "You have to be able to run the ball, protect your quarterback and have a great defense. That defensive performance that we had against Washington we'd like to emulate that. Let's not kid ourselves. But at the same time we have a tough opponent that can run the ball and pass the ball. We're going to have to be on our ‘A' game if we're going to even have a chance to duplicate that performance."
MORRIS NOT GOING ANYWHERE There are some rumors that suggest the Oakland Raiders are interesting in interviewing Tampa Bay defensive backs coach Raheem Morris for their vacant defensive coordinator position.
This may or may not be true, but don't worry, Bucs fans. Morris isn't going to another team this offseason unless a team decides to hire him as a head coach.
Tampa Bay typically requires that coaches and players honor the contracts they sign with the Buccaneers. Much has been made of this after Bucs general manager Bruce Allen denied several assistant coaches, including former linebackers coach Joe Barry, quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett, running backs coach Art Valero and special teams coach Richard Bisaccia, among others, the opportunity to interview for job opportunities elsewhere.
Allen and the Bucs have actually come under fire for this policy, which is handled on a case-by-case basis and does include some exceptions, evidenced by the fact that Allen allowed Tampa Bay tight ends coach Ron Middleton out of his contract during the offseason to take a job with Alabama, where his wife was in need of medical treatment for a serious health condition.
But no one should be complaining if the Bucs deny Morris the opportunity to interview for another job this offseason, even if it's a defensive coordinator post.
Morris, 31, has done an exceptional job of turning Tampa Bay's secondary around. The Bucs' defense ranks No. 1 against the pass and Morris has helped develop rookie safety Tanard Jackson and SS Jermaine Phillips.
The Bucs view Morris as a potential successor for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. They'd be crazy to let him out of his contract early. Bucs fans would be even crazier for complaining about it.
MORE RETIREMENT ANNOUNCEMENTS COMING? It was interesting to hear about former Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp's decision to retire from the NFL this week. Although he has been an Oakland Raider since the 2004 season, here's to hoping No. 99 retires a Buccaneer.
There could be more Buccaneer-related retirement announcements coming this offseason.
Denver strong safety John Lynch, 36, is contemplating retirement and current Bucs fullback Mike Alstott, 34, is expected to retire this offseason.
Tampa Bay 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks will turn 35 in April. Let me be clear – he has not discussed the possibility of retiring publicly, but one would think it would cross his mind at this point in his Hall of Fame career.
The Buccaneers do not have a Hall of Fame or a Ring of Fame at Raymond James Stadium, but they might find themselves in unique position to celebrate the careers of these great players sometime soon.
Tampa Bay has not given out jersey numbers 99 or 47 since Sapp and Lynch were let go during the 2004 offseason. Wouldn't it be something if the Bucs were able to honor Sapp, Lynch, Alstott and Brooks and retire jersey numbers 99, 47, 40 and 55, respectively, at a ceremony next year?
It would be fitting if all four of those Bucs legends called it a career during the same offseason. It would be even more fitting if all four of them retired as Buccaneers.
BUCS EXPECT FANS TO PUMP UP THE VOLUME It's great to hear that Tampa Bay's home playoff game vs. New York is nearly sold out, but it's still a little perplexing how long it's taken to fill Raymond James Stadium to capacity for this intriguing game. Win or lose – Bucs fans should be in for a good one.
With the high in Tampa on Sunday scheduled to be 76 degrees, is there a chance the Buccaneers will wear their white jerseys and make the Giants wear their dark blue jerseys for the afternoon game?
Tampa Bay submitted its jersey choice for this game on Tuesday, and while it is a bit warmer than usual in Tampa for this time of year, expect the Buccaneers to be sporting their red jerseys and pewter pants for Sunday's contest, which is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET.
As for the crowd, the 66,000-plus fans that are attending the Bucs vs. Giants playoff game at Raymond James Stadium will be pumped for the game, or at least that's what the players are expecting.
From talking to several Bucs players this week, they have been pleased with how much the crowd has been into Tampa Bay's last two regular season games. Despite the fact that this game didn't sell out as quickly as expected, most of the players I talked to said they expected an electric and college football-like atmosphere for Sunday's home playoff game.
With the help of a ridiculously loud crowd and Battle Flags waving in the air, the Buccaneers feel the 12th man could make Ray-Jay an hostile and intimidating environment for Giants quarterback Eli Manning and Co. on Sunday.
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