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.''