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The 4-2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are coming off of an impressive 27-3 win over the Carolina Panthers and will host the 1-4 Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night.
The Seahawks are without their starting quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, due to injury. Seattle is 1-5 in its last six trips to the East Coast. Sunday's night game is Tampa Bay's first prime time regular season home game since 2003, and the team will honor retired fullback Mike Alstott at halftime.
So the Bucs should win this game, right? Yes, but there has to be some concern about this matchup since this could be considered a classic trap game, which the Bucs have fallen victim several times before under head coach Jon Gruden.
The Bucs have won the NFC South division title in three of Gruden's first six seasons in Tampa Bay. Although each season was a success, the Bucs might have accomplished more in 2005 and 2007 had they not had some letdown games en route to the playoffs.
Last year, the Bucs produced a 9-7 record. Let's not even count Tampa Bay's two losses to finish the regular season since the Bucs rested most of their starters against San Francisco and Carolina.
But one game the Bucs had no business losing came in Detroit when Tampa Bay was downed by the Lions, 23-16. The Lions finished the regular season with a 7-9 record. Two months later, the Bucs lost in Houston to the Texans, 28-14. The Texans went 8-8 in 2007.
In 2005, Tampa Bay produced an 11-5 record. The Bucs went into New York to face the Jets. The Buccaneers were downed in that game, 14-12. Two games later, the Bucs lost in San Francisco, 15-10. Both the Jets and 49ers finished the 2005 regular season with 4-12 records.
To make matters worse, of those four letdown games, three of the teams – New York, San Francisco and Houston – defeated Tampa Bay with a backup quarterback.
Even though Hasselbeck is not starting and Seattle's group of wide receivers is banged up, the Buccaneers don't appear to be taking the 1-4 Seahawks lightly.
"They're dangerous, man," Bucs defensive tackle Chris Hovan said of Seattle. "Every team has its shortcomings, but they have a great coach (Mike Holmgren) and coaching staff. Matt Hasselbeck is hurt, but the Seahawks are going to come into this game ready to play and fighting for their lives.
"The [previous letdowns] are in the back of your mind, but we're on a national stage right now on NBC and right now we have a dangerous Seattle team coming in because their backs are against the wall. They're 1-4 and they need answers and they need to win. They're coming to Tampa looking for a win, and we can't have that happen. We can't have a team that's fighting for their lives come into town and steal a win from us. We've got to get our work done so that we're prepared for Sunday."
Tampa Bay's offense has no reason to enter this contest overconfident. In the Bucs' last three losses to the Seahawks dating back to 2004, Tampa Bay managed to score just one offensive touchdown and a total of 19 points in those three games.
"They're a very good defense," Bucs tight end Alex Smith said of Seattle's 27th-ranked defense. "I don't think their record and statistics speak to how well their defense is capable of playing. They're solid across the board. It's a tough challenge. We felt that game last year there were some lost opportunities on the field with not getting the ball into the end zone while we were in the red zone. Those are the types of things we're working on and hopefully we can put a complete game together this week."
Added Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia: "Well I think when you look at the Seattle defense that is not necessarily the reason why they are 1-4. They are a team that is very good defensively. They have good players on the defensive side of the ball. We witnessed that last year. It was a struggle against them over there in Seattle. We were only able to get six points on the board. They fly around, they are athletic, and their linebackers are a great group of linebackers. The have some good players upfront that are going to get after the quarterback. They are going to mix coverage's. They are going to disguise coverages. They are going to do things that force you to be very steady as far as your evaluation, and the studying of their approach and their team. That is going to be a great challenge for our offense, as far as how we find ways to move the ball, and find ways to get the ball in the end zone. They shut us out (of the end zone) last year. We hope to not have that happen again."
Some of the other players don't read too much into the letdowns the Bucs had in 2005 and 2007, citing the fact that the National Football League is extremely competitive.
"I think that's just a coincidence," Bucs quarterback Luke McCown said of the trap and letdown games. "We don't play the up-and-down games in this locker room in terms of overlooking teams. You can't do that in this league. Everybody can win and every team is talented. The mindset of this team is to defend our division title. That's our goal, and we can't let any one week of lax in that mindset hinder us from doing that. I think our mindset is fine coming into this game. I think we're focused and ready to go."
The Bucs are in a tight division race. Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Carolina each have a 4-2 record and New Orleans trails by just one game with a 3-3 mark.
Of the four NFC South division teams, the Bucs appear to have the most favorable remaining schedule. Tampa Bay's remaining opponents have posted a combined record of 24-32, and only three of the remaining 10 teams on the Bucs' schedule currently have a winning record.
Let's put that information in perspective, Atlanta's remaining opponents have a 29-29 record. Only three of the Falcons' remaining opponents currently have a winning record, including Tampa Bay.
Carolina's opponents have a 30-27 record. The Panthers will face five teams that currently have winning records, including the Buccaneers.
New Orleans' remaining opponents have a 30-28 record, and five of those teams currently have winning records. However, the Saints appear to have the most difficult remaining schedule, evidenced by the fact that New Orleans must travel to Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and Carolina. The Saints are also about to enter the toughest part of their schedule due to the fact that they will not play at home game for a month since they will play the San Diego Chargers in London on Oct. 26.
Not only are they in the hunt for the NFC South division title, the Buccaneers also have an eye on the NFC playoff race. The best record in the NFC currently belongs to the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants (4-1). Six other NFC teams have 4-2 records, and half of those belong to NFC South teams (Bucs, Falcons and Panthers). The Bucs have a realistic shot at securing homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, which could go a long way in their effort to become the first team ever to play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
Tampa Bay simply can't afford to slip up vs. Seattle, and even if the Buccaneers defeat the Seahawks they will face similar challenges in contests at Kansas City (1-4), at Detroit (0-5) and vs. Oakland (1-4).
The good news for the Bucs is they appear to be taking their upcoming opponents very seriously.
"The whole NFC in general is competitive right now," said Hovan. "If you look at the NFC compared to the AFC this year there's a lot more competitiveness in the divisions. The NFC is real neck-and-neck right now. Every game is going to count. It's real simple – we need to just go out there and win."
REMAINING SCHEDULES FOR NFC SOUTH TEAMS
Atlanta 4-2 At Philadelphia 3-3 At Oakland 1-4 New Orleans 3-3 Denver 4-2 Carolina 4-2 At San Diego 3-3 At New Orleans 3-3 Tampa Bay 4-2 At Minnesota 3-3 St. Louis 1-4
Carolina 4-2 New Orleans 3-3 Arizona 4-2 At Oakland 1-4 Detroit 0-5 At Atlanta 4-2 At Green Bay 3-3 Tampa Bay 4-2 Denver 4-2 At New York Giants 4-1 At New Orleans 3-3
New Orleans 3-3 At Carolina 4-2 San Diego (London) 3-3 At Atlanta 4-2 At Kansas City 1-4 Green Bay 3-3 At Tampa Bay 4-2 Atlanta 4-2 At Chicago 3-3 At Detroit 0-5 Carolina 4-2
Tampa Bay 4-2 Seattle 1-4 At Dallas 4-2 At Kansas City 1-4 Minnesota 3-3 At Detroit 0-5 New Orleans 3-3 At Carolina 4-2 At Atlanta 4-2 San Diego 3-3 Oakland 1-4