Sunday, December 21, 2008, Section C * *
Nobody swallows more truth serum on the Bucs than Ronde Barber. The 12th-year cornerback shoots straighter than a Marine sniper when it comes to assessing the state of the team or the magnitude of any game.
Despite back-to-back losses at Carolina and Atlanta, the Bucs (9-5) still have everything on the table, including the division title and a first-round bye. But realistically, today's meeting with the Chargers (6-8) could be considered an elimination game.
And Barber doesn't mind saying so.
"You've got to treat it like any other game, but there's got to be a real sense of urgency," Barber said. "You don't want to say this is it, but essentially, this is it. You know what's at stake. If we don't win, it's going to be real difficult. I don't think any of us are ready or willing to go home right now, and that's essentially what's going to happen if we don't win this football game."
Judging from history, playing in a must-win game doesn't bode well for the Bucs.
Tampa Bay hasn't won a playoff game since the Super Bowl season of 2002. Winning NFC South titles in 2005 and 2007 produced first-round exits after wild-card losses at Raymond James Stadium against the Redskins and Giants, respectively.
True, unlike playoff losses, there isn't a total finality to today's game against the Chargers. San Diego needs help from Buffalo today to get a shot at taking down the AFC West-leading Broncos next week. And the Bucs could still be in the race if Atlanta loses at Minnesota.
That said, Tampa Bay knows it has to find a way to stop the bleeding after back-to-back losses in crucial division games. It won't be easy considering injuries to starting quarterback Jeff Garcia (calf), defensive tackles Chris Hovan (knee) and Jovan Haye (knee) and linebacker Derrick Brooks (ribs). All are expected to play against the Chargers, who are riding a two-game winning streak.
Meanwhile, the Bucs have yielded 474 yards rushing at Carolina and Atlanta the past two games.
"I do know it's been about us. It hasn't really been about what other teams have done," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "Carolina really played a good game against us. They executed really well. But it was more us missing tackles and missed assignments than them killing us.
"Atlanta was really that way, too. I think Michael (Turner) had 150 yards. But probably 80 or 90 of that was us blowing assignments. There were four plays, the same play, and we missed the assignment on every one of them."
Last week at Atlanta, the Bucs had 11 penalties and yielded four sacks.
"It's just all about composure," center Jeff Faine said. "Everything — holding penalties and blocks in the back and offsides — is all composure, and that's something you can control. Pre-snap penalties … that's stuff you can prevent and something we need to work on."
Gruden, who owns a 5-4 career mark in the postseason, knows the margin for error is pretty small in these types of elimination games — whenever they are played.
"Usually, it's going to come down to the turnovers. It's going to come down to whoever executes the best," Gruden said. "When we lost to Washington one year, we turned the ball over three times in the first 10 minutes in a close game, and we missed a couple of golden opportunities to make plays at the end.
"Last year against the Giants, we got off to a good start. But we had a lot of guys that were a big part of the season last year that didn't play in the game — Cato June and Joey Galloway. Tanard (Jackson) got hurt on the first play of the game. That's my biggest concern right now, the team that was 9-3, we need to get the guys back that helped us get to 9-3."
At least the recent losing streak guarantees the Bucs won't be taking any games off the rest of the season, the way they did last year after essentially clinching the division with several games to go.
"We need to get hot right now," Barber said. "History will tell you that teams that sneak into the playoffs don't do very well. We need to get rolling, start clicking on all sorts of cylinders. We need to get all of them going so we can make a run. That's what it's about in December. I don't think any of us pretend not to understand that."