Playoff swagger is critical
Bucs' goal tonight is to regain attitude that got them into postseason.
By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 29, 2002
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- They have lost their quarterback, a critical game and homefield throughout the playoffs.
But one thing the Bucs think they can get back in time for the postseason is their swagger.
"We need to go out there Sunday and play like we've played in the past," cornerback Ronde Barber said.
"Look at what we did in Detroit, it wasn't satisfactory. Look at what we did against Pittsburgh, it wasn't exactly what we wanted. You want to go into the playoffs playing your best ball. If it looks like it did the past two weeks, it won't be our best ball."
The Bucs enter tonight's game against the Bears with the NFL's No.1 ranked defense. But in the past two games, they have been vulnerable against the run and the pass. The Lions gashed Tampa Bay for 144 rushing yards. Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox completed his first seven passes for 152 yards and a touchdown in building a 17-point first-quarter lead Monday night.
While the Bucs defense should be leading the path to the Super Bowl, it is looking for bread crumbs to find its way back to becoming a dominating unit.
Certainly, Tampa Bay could have a lot riding on today's outcome. A victory would give it a 12-4 record, the best in club history and end its 0-21 streak in games when the temperature at kickoff is colder than 40 degrees.
If the Packers lose at the New York Jets and the Bucs win, Tampa Bay could secure the No.2 seed and a first-round bye.
Also fresh in the Bucs' minds is their loss to the Eagles in the 2001 regular-season finale that seemed to carry into the NFC wild-card game at Veterans Stadium.
"First of all, we want to win," safety John Lynch said. "We went through that last year, kind of tanking a game (against Philadelphia), and I think in a sense it carried over to the playoffs. You want to feel good about yourself. To a larger extent, we want to get our swagger back. You kind of get it knocked off you. And as a team, you see it as the week progresses. We were down early and we're starting to get that feeling back. You need to go beat someone to get that feeling back, and I think we need that going into the playoffs."
Defensive end Simeon Rice, who returns to his collegiate field needing one sack to tie the club record of 161/2, said the Bucs need to keep their eyes on the bigger prize.
"As a team, we have to understand that we're playing for something much bigger than what people think or say," Rice said. "Regardless of how you feel about the situation, you're playing for a world title. It's just like the Steelers. The Steelers came down here, it wasn't about them talking. It was, 'We've got to make it to the playoffs.'
"I mean, it's got to be about something bigger. If it's not about something bigger than your circumstances, then it's not real. It's going to jump up and bite you in the end because you're not going to receive the benefits of your work. You're not going to put your best foot forward, you're going to be taking a cautious step. And you're going to feel miserable."
Not everyone on the defense believes they have anything to prove.
"When did we lose it? What do you mean?" cornerback Dwight Smith said. "How many total yards did they have? We're still the No.1 total defense in the league. We don't have to earn anything back. Pittsburgh had a great seven minutes. They had 176 yards for 31/2 quarters. I don't think we have to do anything besides what we do.
"The reason we need to win is to go into the playoffs winning. Last year, we went in with a loss and then, boom! Next thing you know, you're at home. You want to go into the playoffs with a winning edge. I think it's a good point for people to see how we bounce back from losses and run off three or four wins in a row. If we can do that now, we can be Super Bowl champions. That's what it's all about, getting a victory and getting on the winning track more than getting our swagger back. Because I believe our defense still thinks if we're on it, nobody can move the ball on us."
Defensive tackle Warren Sapp, expected to play despite a left knee sprain, said Tampa Bay should be able to shake the loss of homefield and remember it has clinched a playoff spot.
"They only invite six people. There's 20 teams that woke up this morning with no chance of winning a world title," he said. "We're not one of those teams. That's where the focus of this team should be. We've got a ticket to the tournament, now let's see if we can better our situation by getting a win. And let's wipe this off our resume."
With Brad Johnson still nursing a lower back contusion, the Bucs will start Rob Johnson at quarterback -- their third in as many games. Tampa Bay may have to begin the playoffs that way, especially if it hosts a wild-card game next weekend.
Barber says it shouldn't matter. Not if the defense has its swagger and staggers opponents.
"It should start with us," he said. "It's supposed to start with us. As far as I'm concerned, it's always started with us. We need to keep it that way. We have a big responsibility as individuals and as a unit, we have a lot to give, man, so we have to give it."
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