Buccaneers can make a statement by beating Ravens

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers already have four more wins than last

year. Their 7-3 record has provided coach Raheem Morris cause to

keep claiming his team might be the best in the NFC.

The validity of that statement will again be tested Sunday, when

the upstart Buccaneers face the veteran-laden, first-place

Baltimore Ravens.

Using a solid pass defense and an offense fueled by second-year

quarterback Josh Freeman, tight end Kellen Winslow and rookie

running back LeGarrette Blount, the Bucs have effectively bounced

back from last year’s 3-13 disaster. No longer the bottom-feeders

in the NFC South, Tampa Bay has rebounded by feasting on the

league’s lesser teams.

The Buccaneers lost to Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Atlanta by a

combined 56 points. They have not yet defeated a team with a

winning record.

So, really now, can Tampa Bay be considered a legitimate

contender?

”You play the people they put on your schedule. They line them

up, and you go out there and you play,” Morris said. ”There’s

nobody in the NFL that’s an easy game. That’s all media talk. You

ask anybody in the NFL: Have they ever played in an easy game? I

guarantee they tell you no.”

Morris scoffs at the suggestion Tampa Bay has yet to get a

signature victory.

”There’s only one signature win, and this year that signature

win is being played in Dallas,” he said, referring to the site of

the Super Bowl.

The way Freeman sees it, a victory over Baltimore is no

different than a victory over Carolina.

”At this point, every single win, any opportunity to go out and

get a win, is a huge opportunity,” he said. ”And we just value

every one of them at this point. Down the stretch, it’s going to be

important to get any win you can.”

Beating Baltimore (7-3) on the road, however, would certainly

provide the youthful Buccaneers reason to believe they’re good

enough to make the Super Bowl.

Before the Buccaneers lost to Atlanta earlier this month, Morris

proclaimed his team to be the best in the NFC. In explaining this

week, the second-year coach insisted his boast could still be

true.

”I think it was instilling a belief in my team,” he said. ”It

was a mentality before it was ever reality, and if we don’t believe

we’re the best, we’ve got really no chance at anybody else

believing it. So, when we go out and we play, it’s more about us

than anybody else. And somebody has to finish No. 1. Why not

us?”

The Ravens, of course, have that same expectation. Defeating

Tampa Bay would take Baltimore one step closer toward that

goal.

”We want to get some momentum going,” coach John Harbaugh

said. ”Everything in this league is about December and January.

You want to get yourself to December and January and be relevant

and make it matter. That’s what September, October and November –

and training camp – is for.”

The Ravens have gotten this far with an upgraded passing game

that has helped offset a defense not quite as imposing as in the

past. Baltimore is eighth in total defense, but its 12th-ranked

offense is one big reason the team is in a first-place tie with

Pittsburgh in the AFC North.

Although Joe Flacco has thrown 15 touchdown passes and only two

interceptions in his last eight games, the Ravens could look more

to running back Ray Rice on Sunday. The Buccaneers, ranked 29th

against the rush, have allowed a 100-yard rusher in six of the last

eight games.

The numbers could be misleading, however, because standout

running back Frank Gore of the San Francisco 49ers could muster

only 23 yards on 12 carries in a 21-0 loss to the Bucs last

week.

”When you look at what they did against Frank Gore last week,

you can’t look at their stats and say, ‘We’re going to run the ball

on them,”’ Rice said. ”So, what I like to say is we’ll come into

the game with a complete game plan, a mix between run and

pass.”

The Ravens have won seven straight and 11 of their last 13 at

home. They play four of their final six games at M&T Bank

Stadium.

If the Buccaneers are lucky, maybe Baltimore will be looking

ahead toward next Sunday night’s matchup against Pittsburgh.

”This win is very important to set us up for next week,”

Harbaugh told reporters. ”And, you all know what’s at stake next

week.”