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Win and forget flops past, or lose and face them again.
[an error occurred while processing this directive] By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 3, 2002
TAMPA -- They should gather sometime this week, the coach and his players. He should thank them for months of work. He should applaud their sacrifices.
Then, after a dramatically long pause, he should explain that none of it will be remembered if they do not beat the Falcons on Sunday.
Perhaps it is overstating matters, but not by much. Tampa Bay's success, or lack thereof, seems irrevocably wed to the next game.
Should the Buccaneers win, they remain contenders for the Super Bowl. Should they lose, the course for another playoff flameout will be set.
It really is that simple. The Bucs have put themselves in a position for a season of uncommon achievement. But to follow through, Tampa Bay must take control of the NFC South by beating the Falcons.
If they do, the Bucs will have a leg up on homefield advantage with a good chance to write their own script. If they do not, they will be at the mercy of fate with a good chance to relive the disappointments of the recent past.
Consider the tumble the Bucs are trying to avoid. Two days ago, they woke up as the No. 1 seed in the NFC. That means a first-round bye and homefield advantage through the conference championship. Six days from now, the Bucs might wake up as the No. 6 seed in the NFC. That means no bye and no home games.
Though it may sound ominous, this actually passes for good news. Usually, the Bucs are playing catch-up at this point of the season. For a change, they have the upper hand in the season's final month.
That is why Sunday's game is so critical. Everything that has been accomplished in the first months of Jon Gruden's reign can be validated with a single victory at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.
Tampa Bay could walk off with at least a one-game lead in the division with three to play. And, though the final three include two on the road (at Detroit and at Chicago) and one against a playoff contender (Pittsburgh), the Bucs would be favored in all three.
This is why Gruden was brought here at such a high cost. Sure, he was supposed to give life to a gasping offense. But that's the narrow view.
In the larger sense, in the panorama of the landscape, he was supposed to deliver the Bucs beyond their zone of comfort.
Another wild-card appearance? For a lot less money and draft choices, Tony Dungy could have given you that. He was, in fact, pretty darn dependable when it came to that. But folks around here, particularly rich folks with distinctive beards, were banking on something more.
A division title would mean at least one home game. A division title with one of the two best records in the conference would mean a bye and a home game. A division title with the best record in the conference would mean the Bucs begin the postseason with perhaps their best shot at the Super Bowl since 1979.
"When you have the best record in the conference, you get a bye week, you get a chance to prepare a little better, you get a chance to get some players well," Gruden said. "That's a huge edge and certainly playing in front of your fans, like the ones we have, is a tremendous edge."
If you do not think the division title means anything, you have not been paying attention. You may point to the Ravens of 2000 and say they went from the wild card to the Super Bowl, but they are the exception.
Tampa Bay's playoff history is more typical. Given the opportunity to play at home in the postseason, the Bucs are 3-1. Sent on the road, they are 0-6.
So maybe you think this club is different. Maybe you hope the venue will not have an impact on the result.
History does not just disagree, it is calling you a fool. Let's take a closer look at where the Bucs might start the postseason as a wild card:
San Francisco? Rich McKay was a ballboy and Joe Montana was sharing snaps with Steve DeBerg the last time the Bucs won there.
Green Bay? The Bucs have lost 13 in a row on the road against the Packers.
Philadelphia? The past two postseasons the Bucs have been outscored 52-12 at Veterans Stadium. Go ahead, pick up your chin.
Now you see what this game means. Now you understand how Week 13 in a 16-game schedule can appear so crucial.
Look, this is a pretty good team. It already has accomplished much. If the Bucs had caught a weaker division, they might already be selling playoff tickets. Green Bay has the same record as Tampa Bay and has clinched. The 49ers have a lesser record yet have a three-game lead.
Still, for the most part, the Bucs have gotten what they deserved. Maybe they blew one against New Orleans in the home opener, but maybe they stole one at Atlanta in early October before the Falcons got hot. Either way, 9-3 seems to fit them.
Where they go from here is completely up to them.
By Sunday, you should have a pretty good idea.