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Bucs limping into critical season finale
Several key players are hurting as they vie for playoff-clinching win vs. Saints, 3-0 against Gruden at RJS.
By RICK STROUD
Published December 27, 2005
TAMPA - The playoff picture may be in clear focus for the Bucs, but it's still a little fuzzy who will be available to help them try to earn a spot in the postseason.
As players returned to work Monday, many had to take a number to see the trainer.
Receiver Michael Clayton is expected to miss Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints with a left turf toe. Starting strong safety Jermaine Phillips is doubtful with a right knee sprain and tackle Kenyatta Walker is questionable with a right ankle and foot sprain.
All were injured in Saturday's 27-24 overtime win against the Atlanta Falcons.
"We've overcome (injuries) before," said quarterback Chris Simms, who took over a 5-1 team when Brian Griese suffered a season-ending knee injury. "I don't think it's going to alter anything we do.
"I was just really trying to figure out the whole playoff thing. I couldn't understand why we really haven't clinched a spot and the Giants have. I don't understand that, I don't get it. But nonetheless, we're right in the position we want to be in. We win, we get the three seed, we have a home wild-card game and that's really all we should worry about anyway."
For the Bucs, the equation is simple: win, and they're in.
Tampa Bay (10-5) would win the NFC South and host a wild-card game. The same holds true if Carolina loses to the Falcons Sunday or both tie.
There is at least one scenario, however, in which the Bucs could miss the postseason: a Tampa Bay loss to the Saints, a Cowboys (9-6) win over the Rams (5-10), a Giants (10-5) loss at the Raiders (4-11) and a Redskins (9-6) win over the Eagles (6-9). The Cowboys and Giants would earn the NFC wild cards.
Beating the Saints (3-12) won't be easy. New Orleans has won at Raymond James Stadium each of the past three seasons.
"We've got to win this game," coach Jon Gruden said. "It's a big game for us. The Saints have given us problems in the past. At least since I've been here, they're 3-0 in our stadium. Big football game for us, we're looking forward to it."
In fact, Gruden bristled at a television reporter's suggestion the Bucs are playing against an opponent they are favored (by 14) to beat.
"Who says that? I don't play that game," Gruden said. "You see Buffalo go to Cincinnati, they win the game. Nobody expected Dallas, I don't think, to go to Carolina and win. You've got to play great to win in this league these days."
Battling through injuries is nothing new. Rookie running back Cadillac Williams missed two games. Clayton, who did not play Nov. 13 against the Redskins because of a knee bruise, has struggled with a shoulder separation.
"It's been a long season," Clayton said. "I just have to stay positive and be out here for my teammates and see them through it. We still have a long season ahead of us with the playoffs. We need to take care of this game coming up with New Orleans. That's nothing we can overlook. If there's any way possible I can get back for the playoffs, I'll be here."
With the second-year player out, the Bucs will depend on two receivers trying to atone for mistakes against the Falcons. Veteran Ike Hilliard dropped a potential touchdown pass just seconds before Williams tied the score in regulation with a 6-yard touchdown run. Edell Shepherd fumbled the overtime kickoff but was bailed out when Dewayne White blocked a 28-yard field-goal attempt by Todd Peterson.
"You have to put it behind you," Shepherd said. "Of course I want to go back out there and redeem myself. At the same time, I've got to stay focused and stay ready to play and not let that distract me in any way."
There's no reason to be distracted. The only score they have to be concerned with is theirs.
"It's real nice not having to depend on another team to clinch the South," Williams said. "It's all on us and that's the way you want it to be. I'm pretty sure we're going to be pumped up Sunday and we're going to go out and try to get it done."