TAMPA — The big-game aura surrounding Sunday's Bucs-Saints matchup at Raymond James Stadium is not lost on the players. It has been a half-dozen years since Tampa Bay was 7-5 with a shot of at least an NFC wild-card playoff spot. Even at 5-7, the Saints are still in the playoff chase.
Coach Dirk Koetter said it's useless trying to pretend otherwise.
"I think whether I wanted them to (heighten the importance of the game) or not, they will. I try not to worry about stuff I have no control over," Koetter said. "I have messages, our staff has messages that it's my job to get across to the team each week. But as we've said in here multiple times, these guys can all read, they can all listen — although sometimes I ask myself if they're listening — but they know what's going on. That's why you play the game. You can't help but know what's going on, but at the same time we've just got to stay focused on what we need to do. We've been playing complimentary football. We don't need to try and change that all of a sudden. There's teams that you go against every week that have different strengths and different weaknesses and ways they're going to attack us. We have to figure out the best way to attack them, sell it to the players and get it done on Sunday."
DT Gerald McCoy, a rookie the last time the Bucs were relevant this late in the year, said he's glad fans are able to enjoy it.
"I run into people all the time in public saying, 'Thank you for giving us something to believe in,' " McCoy said. "It feels good, not just for us but for them, too. I don't think people realize when you say 'fan,' it's short for fanatic, so these people, this is a part of their life. If anything is a part of your life and it's not going good, it affects you. So when we're winning, it makes it easier on our fans, and we're happy about that."
HUMPHRIES RETURNS, NOT CLEARED: WR Adam Humphries remains in concussion protocol, but he took a step toward playing again when he returned to practice Thursday.
Humphries was hit on a third-down play in the second quarter of Sunday's win at San Diego and did not return. The Bucs have already placed WR Cecil Shorts, who suffered a major knee injury in the game, on injured reserve and promoted Josh Huff from the practice squad.
And while Humphries was back at practice, four others remain sidelined: T Demar Dotson (concussion), S Chris Conte (chest), TE Luke Stocker (ankle) and McCoy (foot) were not at practice, though McCoy is expected to play as he did last week after being held out of two practices to rest the injury. CB Alterraun Verner was excused for the second straight day to attend his father's memorial services in California and is expected to rejoin the team today.
KOETTER BORROWED FROM SAINTS OFFENSE: When Koetter came into the league as an offensive coordinator with the Jaguars, he spent a lot time watching film of the Saints: "I've admired what they've done. When I came into the league to Jacksonville from my college career, I studied a ton of New Orleans tape and found that conceptually we were similar. I've never really told anybody this but I used a lot of New Orleans cutups to install our offense in Jacksonville."
Times staff writer Greg Auman contributed to this report.