TAMPA — Linebacker Lavonte David remembers his only trip to AT&T Stadium to play the Dallas Cowboys when he was a rookie in 2012, and despite a 16-10 loss, the shrine to showbigness did not disappoint. But it has been at least eight seasons since the Bucs have been on such a mammoth stage with so much on the line.
The Cowboys own the best record in the NFL at 11-2. The Bucs are tied with the Falcons for the NFC South lead at 8-5, hold a wild-card spot and are winners of five straight, matching the Lions for the longest streak in the league.
If that weren't enough, they are playing America's Team in a hype-filled spectacle on NBC's Sunday Football Night in America.
"We've been handling the big stages pretty well," David said. "We've got a great football team coming up, the Dallas Cowboys. It's going to be a battle. We're going to Jerry's World. It's always fun to play there.
"It goes to show your hard work is paying off and people are taking notice."
The first ones to take notice are the TV networks, and on Monday, Fox flexed the Bucs game on Dec. 24 in New Orleans to 4:25 p.m. It's the third week in a row the 1 p.m. starting time has been moved for a bigger audience.
"So that means somebody is noticing," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said.
You would have to go back to 2008 in what became Jon Gruden's final season as head coach to find a bigger stage for the Bucs than this Sunday night in Dallas.
The Bucs and Panthers were 9-3 and co-owners of the No. 1 seed in the NFC entering a Monday Night Football game at Carolina. But Tampa Bay was an aging team, especially on defense, and the Panthers ran all over them. DeAngelo Williams (186 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (115) combined to rush for 301 yards in a 38-23 rout. The Bucs lost their next three games and were eliminated from the postseason, resulting in Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen being fired.
Somehow this feels different. The Bucs have a second-year quarterback who has made one Pro Bowl in Jameis Winston, not a 38-year-old Jeff Garcia. The defense is ascending in the first season under coordinator Mike Smith.
Since Week 10, the Bucs are the best in the NFL in points allowed per game (12.8), total takeaways (14, including a league-best 10 interceptions), touchdowns allowed (six) and opposing passer rating (62.5).
But Koetter knows this will be an even bigger step up in weight class. The Cowboys are "loaded on offense," Koetter says, with rookies such as quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott leading the way.
"They've got big-time players at every position and at least three Pro Bowl offensive linemen, an elite left tackle, a great, explosive wide receiver, one of the best tight ends of all time, two rookies that everybody is arguing who's the rookie of the year and who's the MVP of the league between those two guys," Koetter said.
Don't be fooled by the fact that the Giants snapped the Cowboys' 11-game win streak Sunday and swept them this season. This is the most complete team the Bucs will play in 2016.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's offense isn't lighting up the scoreboard. The Bucs have nine offensive touchdowns in the past five games, including one each at Kansas City and Sunday against New Orleans.
The Bucs most likely have to win their final three games to have a good shot at the division title or secure a wild card. By far the toughest opponent should be the Cowboys, with the stars on their helmets, Jerry Jones in the owner's suite, the opulence of Jerry's World and the world's largest video board that you can hide a 747 behind.
"It's a cool place to play. It's an awesome stadium to play in," Koetter said. "I've heard them say the last couple games there it's been a great atmosphere and extremely loud. I'm sure our guys will be fired up to play when the time comes, but we can't start getting fired up about it Monday at 4:30."
Koetter is right. How 'bout dem Cowboys? Right now, they're just a team standing in the way. But it sure feels like something bigger than just a regular-season football game.
"You know, we're an 8-5 football team. We've got bigger goals than that," Koetter said. "It's nice. It's nice. When we were 3-5, I'm sure not many people thought we were going to be 8-5. But we've got more to accomplish, and you're not going to accomplish anything by looking backward."