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Bucs not saying it's a must win, but . . .

Traditionally, the Bucs have avoided the dreaded words "must win." And they are doing their best to avoid them this week.

But the reality facing the defending Super Bowl champions as they enter the second half of the season is that Sunday's game in Charlotte is just that.

At 4-4, the Bucs are two games behind the Panthers in the NFC South and can't afford a loss.

"Obviously, it's a big game," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "You kind of have to be careful with your words and don't say "must wins' or "gotta-have wins' until it's that last game, but it's definitely a game that we have to respond back from. We've been win, loss, win, loss, that type of deal, and we have to find a way to get our fifth win."

A loss not only gives the Bucs a losing record, it gives them two losses against the Panthers, dropping them farther back when it comes to tiebreakers.

"It's definitely a big game for us. It's as big as it gets," left tackle Kenyatta Walker said. "I think every week you try to go into it thinking it has to be a must win. (But) with Carolina beating us the first game, we don't want to go two down or three down, you all know about that better than me."

With eight games left, linebacker Derrick Brooks said the game is important but cautioned teammates not to get carried away.

"When you start using that "must win,' it creates a sense of panic," Brooks said. "We're not panicking by any stretch of the word. Obviously, it's very important that we go up there and get a win. But I hate to categorize anything this early as a must win."

SAFETY PATROL: The situation at safety is looking better for the Bucs. Though second-year safety Jermaine Phillips is out four to six weeks with a fractured right forearm, starter John Lynch is likely to return after missing two games with a shoulder stinger and backup John Howell seems set to return from a hamstring strain.

"I'm planning on playing and looking forward to getting back in the lineup," Lynch said. "I think we have given it ample time to rest and I am confident that my problem has calmed down. We'll be ready to play."

Howell, who typically backs up Lynch at strong safety, missed the Saints game. He said he'll play Sunday.

"It feels great," Howell said. "I tell you what, it's a big improvement from a few days ago. It feels a lot better and my goal is to get back out there on Sunday."

Howell said he wants to increase his practice participation gradually over the next two days so that he hits Sunday's game in full stride.

VETERAN WORKOUT: The Bucs worked out former Falcons running back Jamal Anderson Wednesday afternoon. It is unclear how the workout went or whether the Bucs plan to sign Anderson, who has rushed for 5,336 yards and 34 touchdowns in his career.

Anderson, 31, last played for the Falcons early in the 2001 season before the second of two serious knee injuries shut him down.

He helped the Falcons reach the Super Bowl at the end of the 1998 season.

"They like the fact he's a power runner and they love his receiving ability too," Anderson's agent, James Sims, told ESPN.com. "Nothing has happened yet, but we'll see."

The Bucs have lost fullback Mike Alstott for the year and starting running back Michael Pittman sustained a calf strain against the Saints and is listed as probable.

INJURY REPORT: Howell, receiver Joe Jurevicius (right knee sprain) and linebacker Ryan Nece (right ankle sprain) are listed as questionable. Lynch, guard Cornell Green (left ankle sprain), cornerback Hank Poteat (right hamstring strain) and guard Jason Whittle (left shoulder sprain) are all probable.

_ ROGER MILLS, RICK STROUD

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