TAMPA — Bucs coach Lovie Smith already has declared the next two games as the start of the Bucs' 2016 season, hoping to build momentum that will sustain them for eight months.
But December hasn't been much to remember for the Bucs (6-8). In the past five years, Tampa Bay is 3-18 during the final month of the regular season.
"I'm a firm believer — big believer — that it's about momentum and how you finish up," Smith said. "Yes, I believe that. We know that we are going to be a good football team, but how about confirming it right at the end. There's a good chance we can play the Chicago Bears next year. For us, we know we are going to play the team with the best record in football right now (that) is in our division. We're going to have to eventually beat the Carolina Panthers. To have an opportunity to beat the Bears and to finish up with the possible Super Bowl champion or whatever, yeah, I think that momentum can help us as we start working in the offseason."
It's difficult for teams to be consistent from one season to the next because of the amount of roster turnover each year. But with the Bucs' core of players in either their first or second seasons, Smith doesn't believe a lack of continuity will be a concern.
"It will change from year to year, but the foundation will not change," Smith said. "Our core players will remain in place. We talk about young players. When you go through what we've gone through with young players, you think we're going to let somebody have them? No, these are foundation pieces we're talking about that we're going to go forward with."
COMING BACK: DE T.J. Fatinikun has been on injured reserve since an ACL injury to his right knee in Week 4, but the 24-year-old is doing well in his rehabilitation and eager to return healthy for the 2016 season.
"It tests your mental strength," he said from the Bucs' locker room Wednesday. "My biggest thing is covering the bases, not overlooking stuff. It helps you see things in a whole different perspective, which I think will make me a better player. It's a tough process. It's ridiculously hard, but I've had great support from these guys, my family and my friends, and it helps keep you going and getting better."
Fatinikun, born in Lagos, Nigeria, has decided to now go by his given name, Olatunji (oh-lah-TOON-gee), from which his nickname is derived.
His full name is Ayokunle Olatunji Fatinikun.
"I'm growing into a man," he said. "This injury was definitely a life-changing experience for me. I was stunned by it. I just wanted to change things and make sure I'm becoming a better man and fully be the man I can be, starting with my name."
Fatinikun, who had nine tackles as a rookie in 2014 and three in two games this season before the injury, still has months of rehabilitation ahead but is hopeful he can be back at practice, perhaps by offseason workouts or mandatory minicamp in early summer. The Bucs have a handful of promising young linemen, including second-year pro Jacquies Smith and first-year player Howard Jones, both 25.
"I feel better now, and I'm not even all the way healed yet," Fatinikun said. "I'm excited about the opportunity when I am fully healthy."
JACKSON, SPENCE OUT: The Bucs will be without WR Vincent Jackson (knee) and DT Akeem Spence (ankle) again Sunday against the Bears. S Chris Conte (ankle) and DL Kourtnei Brown (groin) are doubtful. G Logan Mankins (knee) is questionable and could be a gametime decision. DE George Johnson (calf) is probable.
ETC.: The Bucs say Sunday's game, the season finale at Raymond James Stadium, is approaching a sellout.
Times staff writer Greg Auman contributed to this report.