TAMPA — This is a hat and T-shirt game for Houston. A win Saturday over the Bucs would give the Texans the AFC South title and a chance to break out the commemorative merchandise.
The Bucs’ playoff hopes were given last rites weeks ago, but at 7-7 this is their opportunity for a signature win. They have won four in a row and five of six. None of those victories have come against teams headed to the postseason. The only team with winning record that coach Bruce Arians has beaten this year is the Rams in Week 4, a 55-40 clubbing that was fool’s gold because it was followed by a four-game losing streak.
“Yes, for us it is a big December game. It’s a good measuring stick even without whoever is not playing," Arians said. “It doesn’t matter. It’s still going to be a team going to the playoffs.
“We’ve beaten one team that was almost in the playoffs (Los Angeles). We went to overtime with a No. 1 seed in their place (Seattle). (Those are) the things I think you judge on when you look back, when you get to that rearview mirror, and you start evaluating where we’re at next year.”
The Texans (9-5) could win their third AFC South title in six years under coach Bill O’Brien, who became close friends with Bucs general manager Jason Licht while the two worked for the Patriots.
“It’s always good to be playing meaningful games in December. I think that’s one of your goals," O’Brien said. “You know, you want to be in the hunt in December. We’re in the hunt. The issue is we’re playing a very hot team. Tampa Bay is doing some great things offensively and defensively, very difficult to run the ball on them.
“We’ve got a big challenge."
Tampa Bay’s secondary is playing with more confidence, but it hasn’t faced many combinations as potent as Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson and receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
“He’s a combination of (Muhsin) Muhammad and Steve Smith," Arians said of Hopkins. “He’ll beat you up and just take the ball. It’s his ball, he’s going to take it. And Deshaun is going to throw it to him because he knows he’s going to catch it."
The Bucs last won five in a row in 2016, when they finished 9-7 in Dirk Koetter’s first season as head coach. The future looked bright, but it didn’t carry over to the next year or even the next as the Bucs posted consecutive 5-11 seasons.
Somehow, this would feel different given the degree of difficulty navigating a schedule with more than 20,000 miles in travel and seven weeks between games in Tampa. The Bucs finished 5-3 on the road (excluding the loss to the Panthers in London, which counted as a home game in Tampa Bay). Typically, when an NFL team does that, they’re pretty certain of earning a playoff spot.
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The hope for 2020 lies in the defensive improvement, which followed Arians’ benching Vernon Hargreaves for loafing against Arizona. Hargreaves is back Saturday as a member of the Texans. He has a pretty good feel for former teammate and Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston, who will be without Pro Bowl receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
While Winston won’t have Evans, Godwin or Scotty Miller (all out with hamstring injuries), in a way it could serve him well trying to make a case for a long-term contract if he beats the Texans. He won at Detroit throwing three touchdown passes to Breshad Perriman. Now he will have to win making better use of players such as Spencer Schnell and former LSU sprinter Cyril Grayson Jr., who was plucked off the Cowboys practice squad this week.
“This is one that’s in first place in their division," Arians said. “I think it’s something you could really build off."
Top three revenge performances vs. the Bucs
With former first-round pick and starting cornerback Vernon Hargreaves returning to face the Bucs Saturday with the Houston Texans, here’s a look at three Tampa Bay exes who came back to haunt Tampa Bay:
Keyshawn Johnson: The Bucs made Johnson inactive toward the end of the 2003 season. After two seasons in Dallas, he returned to Raymond James Stadium with the Carolina Panthers and caught seven passes for 97 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for a score in a 26-24 win over the Bucs.
John Lynch: The Bucs failed Lynch on his physical and released him before the 2004 season. He was signed by the Broncos and made an emotional homecoming at RJS. Lynch had consecutive short-yardage stops on Bucs running back Mike Alstott, sparking Denver’s decisive field-goal drive in a 16-13 win.
Aqib Talib: He was traded to the Patriots, but it wasn’t until he was with the Broncos in 2016 that he got revenge. Talib had two interceptions of Jameis Winston in a 27-7 win at RJS.