There's something special about NFL prime time games.
They're must-see TV. Every game feels big. Looks big. Sounds big.
The top announcers. The dramatic music. Elaborate pregame show. That it's the only game in town — the town in this case being all of America.
There's the legendary Monday Night Football, the most-watched show on cable with more than 13 million viewers a week. There's the most-watched television show in the country, Sunday Night Football and its 24 million viewers. And in recent years, there is Thursday Night Football.
Seems like everybody watches prime time games. Actually, the number is somewhere around an average 17.5 million viewers. That dwarfs the few million who typically watch a Sunday afternoon Bucs game.
And here's the part that the teams really dig: that 17.5 million includes most of the players and coaches in the NFL.
"Absolutely, yes, sir,'' Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston said when asked if he watches prime time games.
Winston is not alone. Players might act all cool, but ask them if they watch other NFL games in prime time and they don't hesitate to turn into football fanatics.
"I watch it as a fan,'' Winston said, echoing the sentiment of many of his teammates. "I'm just watching football like I usually watch it.''
The best part is that prime time games usually involve the top teams. Seems like every week the best teams and biggest stars are on display. Tom Brady is as much of a TV star as Judge Judy. Same with Peyton Manning, J.J. Watt and Cam Newton. There's the Patriots and Packers and Steelers and … the Bucs?
Get ready, America, here comes Tampa Bay. The Bucs hit prime time tonight to take on the Rams.
Okay, maybe the Bucs aren't one of the NFL's best teams. So what are they doing on Thursday Night Football?
Well, a new NFL rule states that every team must make at least one prime time appearance, and this Thursday night game drew the short straw … er, I mean, gets the Bucs.
You can imagine that the rest of the country might be a bit skeptical about what the Bucs might offer.
The Bucs' Thursday night history includes a December 2011 game in which they fell behind 28-0 at halftime to Dallas on their way to a boring 31-15 loss. That was the eighth consecutive loss in a season-ending 10-game losing streak that cost coach Raheem Morris his job.
The last time Tampa Bay played on a Thursday night? The game should have come with a parental guidance warning. The league needed to consider implementing a running clock in the second half as the Bucs trailed 56-0 at one point on their way to a 56-14 loss to the Falcons last year.
"But now,'' defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said, "we're a different team.''
The Bucs are hoping that with a new cast and a new script, this team is putting on a show worth watching.
"I just want to show the world how good this team really is,'' Winston said. "This is our chance, and we have to take advantage of it."
The Bucs aren't in the best place to play well. They are missing Kwon Alexander on defense and Vincent Jackson on offense. They are coming off a disheartening, flat performance against the Saints — a 24-17 loss that pretty much short-circuited Tampa Bay's slim playoff hopes. Throw in that it's a road game in a short week and you might not see the same pep that you would normally see from the Bucs.
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But as wide receiver Adam Humphries pointed out, "We haven't had a prime time game this year. It's good to go out and show the nation what the Bucs are all about.''
What are the Bucs all about? What might the nation see?
A rookie quarterback (Winston) who has met, if not exceeded, the expectations of a No. 1 overall draft pick. A running back (Doug Martin) who is among the best in the NFL this season. A 6-7 team that might be inconsistent but is leaps and bounds ahead of last season's two-win fiasco.
"Everybody gets to see what we can do,'' receiver Mike Evans said. "A lot of people haven't seen us. They've just seen and heard the numbers. Hopefully, they see the physical team we are.''
It's true that the Bucs' reputation has grown in the past couple of months. They have gone from a laughingstock as one of the league's worst franchises to a respectable team that looks to be on the rise.
If they do keep climbing, you know what that means. More prime time games.
"As we go to that next stage, which we will eventually get to, we're going to have a lot of these prime time games,'' coach Lovie Smith said. "It is a big thing. … This is a big deal to us. We have an opportunity where we are the only team that is playing at the time, and we want to show people we've improved. We're not the same old Bucs or any of that. We've improved an awful lot, and now we get an opportunity to show you."
You and the rest of the country.