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For Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it's time for a little taste of the big time

The air feels a little bit different, almost as if there were tiny sparks in the wind.

The music sounds a little bit louder, almost as if someone in charge of the sound system had cranked the volume to 11.

The chatter seems a little more urgent, almost as if a player's blood had been blended with Red Bull.

And the game? It feels a little larger, almost as if it were growing out of the rest of the regular season. Somehow, things matter more. Even when you play for money, the butterflies can get larger, and the challenge can feel greater, and the reward can seem richer.

Yeah, you remember this. It is the taste of a big game. It is one good team against another good team, from the same division, playing late in the season with the playoffs on the line. It is a battle of contenders in December, each with an impressive young quarterback on one of those showdown-in-the-streets afternoons.

If only there were a few more fans, we might have us an event.

After all this time, isn't that cool?

It has been a while since the Bucs have played in one of these grab-your-attention games and a while longer since they have won one. But if they want to play in even bigger games, the playoff variety, this would be a good place to start.

"I remember the feel of big games," former Bucs safety John Lynch said. "That's what I miss. I always tried to feed off the energy. I tried to soak it in. Your senses are definitely heightened. I remember thinking I could smell the grass better.

"Then, once the game started, I would focus in and shut out the noise and get ready to play."

For a professional, knowing when to get excited about the game and when to maintain calm is the key to a big game. For all the cliches about approaching games in the same manner and acting as if all opponents are created equal, players are aware of the size of the game and the measure of an opponent and the stakes of the outcome.

"That's the best part," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "Just knowing we're in a big game. We went about a year and a half without one.

"But during the week, you can't make it a bigger game. (For) the best players I've been around, and the best teams, it's the same approach. Everyone knows there are games that are more important than others, but if you treat them differently, you're not going to play the same."

For a player, particularly a young player, this is the challenge of a big game. He must take all of the excitement around him then temper it. He must take a big game and treat it like a small one. After all, it is possible for players to get too amped up for a big game.

"My whole career, I was a cramper," Lynch said. "Some people thought it was because I was playing in 105-degree temperatures. But that wasn't it. The bigger the game, the more likely I was to cramp. It was just adrenaline."

Brad Culpepper, a former Bucs defensive tackle, puts it this way: "The best teams take big games in stride. You try to play a big game like it was a small game."

For some, the dividing line between the buzz and the business at hand is the kickoff. Even Bucs coach Raheem Morris, for instance, says he is likely to spend a moment or two savoring the taste of a big game.

"And then they'll play the national anthem, and I'll change," he said.

"Before that, I'm different. I'm loose, and I'm joking around, and I'm talking to my coaches on the headsets. Take last week. You run out of the tunnel, and you hear people yell, 'You said you were the best in the NFC, but this is the AFC,' and they're showing me their middle fingers. That's the best. But when they play the anthem, it's business. I'm locked in."

So why is this a big game? Because Atlanta is 9-2 and the Bucs are 7-4, and it's beginning to look like at least one pretty good record is going to be left out of the playoffs. It's a big game because it's against the Falcons, and there seems to be a nice bit of friction developing between the two. It's a big game because the last time the teams played, 1 yard separated them.

It's a big game for quarterback Josh Freeman, who hasn't seemed in quite the same rhythm the past two weeks, and for running back LeGarrette Blount, whose only disappointment this year came when he zagged instead of zigged near the Falcons goal line, and for safety Corey Lynch, who gets a chance to live up to his last name as a starter.

It's a big game for Morris, whose Bucs still haven't beaten a team with a winning record, and for cornerback Aqib Talib, who, frankly, was treated worse by Derrick Mason than he was by a referee last week, and for Stylez White and the Stylistics, the who-are-those-guys defensive linemen who have done a better job of rushing the passer lately.

And on and on. Pretty much, it's a big game for all concerned.

After the small ball of last year — 3-13 teams never have games worth measuring — that's not bad progress, is it?

Oh, the Bucs have had their share of sizable regular-season contests over their history. The biggest was probably that season-ender in 1981, when John McKay — who is being inducted into the Ring of Honor today — and his Bucs won a win-or-go-home season finale against the Lions. The Bucs went on the road to beat the Lions, who had been 7-0 at home, and advanced to the playoffs. The Lions didn't make it.

Then there was the regular-season finale of 2000 in Green Bay, when kicker Martin Gramatica missed a 40-yard field goal that would have won the game in regulation. The Bucs lost in overtime, and as a result, their entire postseason was altered. Instead of getting a bye week and a home game, the Bucs had to go to Philadelphia. They lost. If the Bucs had beaten the Packers, who is to say how that season would finished.

Then there was the Monday night game against Carolina in 2008. Both teams were 9-3 going in, and the score was tied at 17 going into the fourth quarter. But the Panthers ran over the Bucs in the fourth, and after three more losses in a row, Jon Gruden and his staff were fired.

So, yeah, big games can have big results. Imagine the Bucs at 8-4, one game out of the NFC South lead. Then imagine them at 7-5 instead.

Big difference.

Big game.

.Fast facts

Shelton's top 10 regular-season Bucs games

1. Dec. 20, 1981: Beat Detroit in a battle of 8-7 teams, with the winner going to the playoffs and the loser going home. The Bucs won 20-17.

2. Dec. 24, 2000: Lost to the Packers 17-14 in overtime after missing a winning field goal in regulation. A Bucs win would have meant a bye week and a home game in the playoffs. They didn't, and the season died in Philadelphia.

3. Jan. 2, 1982: Beat Chicago 26-23 in overtime to reach 5-4 and make the playoffs in the strike-shortened season. It was the team's fifth win in six games.

4. Dec. 8, 2008: Lost to Carolina on Monday night, 38-23. Both teams were 9-3 and the score was 17-17 going into the fourth. Then the bottom fell out. The Panthers rushed for 299 yards on the night, outscored the Bucs 21-6 in the fourth quarter and started a four-game skid for Tampa Bay that cost coach Jon Gruden and GM Bruce Allen their jobs.

5. Dec. 16, 1979: After three straight losses, the Bucs beat Kansas City 3-0 in a rainstorm to reach the playoffs for the first time.

6. Dec. 8, 2002: The Bucs (9-3) beat the Falcons (8-3-1) to show they were indeed a Super Bowl contender. Tampa Bay won 34-10.

7. Dec. 24, 2005: An overtime field goal by Matt Bryant allowed the Bucs (9-5) to beat the Falcons (8-6).

8. Oct. 6, 2003: Awfully early to be a big game. But Jon Gruden's Bucs were 2-1 and Tony Dungy's Colts were 4-0 when they played on Monday night. The Colts overcame a three-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter, and in a way, the Bucs were never a quite the same afterward.

9. Dec. 18, 2000: The Bucs never played a more exciting game than when they beat the Rams 38-35. Shaun King passed for 256 yards, and Warrick Dunn rushed for 145.

10. Dec. 6, 1999: Both teams were 7-4 when the Bucs beat Minnesota 24-17. Eventually, the Bucs beat the Vikings by a game to win the division on their way to the NFC title game.

For Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it's time for a little taste of the big time 12/04/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 4, 2010 4:35pm]
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