In light of recent events, it has been judged that a distraction is necessary. So why not look forward to future opponents (assuming there IS an NFL next year, gah)?
First off, and for no reason in particular: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You know them. They burst our bubble in 2009, have been a thorn in our side since the days of the NFC Central... And the Packers beat them out for the 6th seed of the NFC Playoffs.
The 2009 season saw Tampa Bay finish with a 3-13 overall record, the worst in their division and the 3rd worst record in the NFL. Given this disaster of a season, Raheem Morris needed something, anything, if he was going to stick around.
And he got just that. Tampa Bay improved its record to 10-6, and while the Buccaneers didn't make the playoffs, they were able to finish on a high note, finishing the regular season with wins over NFC West Champion Seattle and the defending champion Saints.
THE EARLY GOING
Week 1: Tampa Bay 17, Cleveland 14
Week 2: Tampa Bay 20, Carolina 7
Week 3: Pittsburgh 38, Tampa Bay 13
Week 4: BYE
Tampa Bay rallied from a 14-3 deficit to beat Cleveland in their season opener, using a circus touchdown catch by rookie Mike Williams and another touchdown pass from Josh Freeman to Ernest Graham to pull out a win. In week two, the Buccaneers pounded the Carolina Panthers (who would later turn out to be the worst team in the NFL, and it wasn't even close).
But in their next game, against a Pittsburgh team sans Ben Roethlisberger, the Bucs lost. Big. Despite forcing a pair of Charlie Batch interceptions, the Buccaneers could not stop Rashard Mendenhall, who ran for 143 yards, averaging an impressive 7.5 YPC. In addition, Tampa Bay gave up three passing touchdowns to the Steelers; Mike Wallace alone managing 100 yards receiving and 2 touchdowns on just 3 catches.
The Buccaneers took a 2-1 record into an early bye.
Week 5: Tampa Bay 24, Cincinnati 21
Week 6: New Orleans 31, Tampa Bay 6
Week 7: Tampa Bay 18, St. Louis 17
Week 8: Tampa Bay 38, Arizona 35
Week 9: Atlanta 27, Tampa Bay 21
Tampa Bay came out of their bye week and faced a 2-2 Cincinnati team, which they beat 24-21 by scoring 10 points in the final 1:26 of the 4th Quarter. Despite allowing 144 rushing yards to Cedric Benson, the Bucs got what they needed to in crunch time. But afterwards, the Bucs were smushed on their home field, losing big to the division rival Saints, 31-6, with Chris Ivory running for 158 yards (at an insane clip of 10.5 YPC) on the Tampa Bay defense.
After getting pasted by the Saints, the Bucs took on the Rams and managed another win with almost no time remaining, getting a touchdown pass from Josh Freeman to Carnell Williams with 0:10 seconds remaining. The Buccaneers withstood 110 rushing yards from Steven Jackson. A road trip to Arizona followed, and while Tampa Bay didn't get shredded on the ground, they instead got destroyed by Derek Anderson. You read that right. Anderson rallied Arizona from a 31-14 deficit to take the lead in the 4th quarter (35-31) on a touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald. But Tampa drove the field on their next offensive possession: after a 53-yard gain by rookie receiver Arrelious Benn set up a first and goal, the Buccaneers cashed in, scoring on a LeGarrette Blount touchdown to take the lead, 38-35. It was one that Tampa Bay would not relinquish.
Through 7 games, the Buccaneers were 5-2, but both of their losses had been blowouts. In addition, the running defense (or lack thereof) had resulted in Tampa Bay's almost weekly need for late-game comebacks. Still, the team was close to doubling its win total from the previous season.
But instead of reaching 6-2, the Bucs had an 89 yard drive go to waste in the Georgia Dome, getting stuffed on 4th and goal by the Atlanta Falcons defense. Despite getting a kick return for a touchdown by Micheal Spurlock (which was only the 2nd kick returned for a touchdown in Tampa Bay history; the other was by Spurlock against Atlanta in the 2007 season), the Buccaneers simply made too many mistakes: Josh Freeman only completed 50% of his passes and threw as many touchdowns as he did interceptions (2).
THE MIDWAY POINT
The Bucs were 5-3, but all of their wins were against teams that would finish with losing records.
Cleveland? 5-11, Mangini fired at the end of the year.
Carolina? 2-14, John Fox wouldn't stick around.
St. Louis? 7-9, and one game from joining the 2008 San Diego Chargers as .500 division champions.
Ick. If Tampa HADN'T won these games, Morris would have been in major jeopardy. After two games against rather lackluster competition (the still-struggling Panthers and a San Francisco team that ranged anywhere from lifeless to good on any given week), Tampa Bay would draw two tough opponents.
Week 10: Tampa Bay 31, Carolina 16
Week 11: Tampa Bay 21, San Francisco 0
Week 12: Baltimore 17, Tampa Bay 10
Week 13: Atlanta 28, Tampa Bay 24
Tampa Bay swept away the Panthers, 31-16. Again, the Buccaneers gave up a 100 yard rusher (Mike Goodson) but were more than able to beat away the Panthers, who were 1-7 ENTERING the game. Tampa Bay traveled to San Francisco and handed the 49ers a stunning shut-out on their home field, a place where not even the 2004 SanFran team (which was all of 2-14) had been blanked. A big factor was Tampa's defensce COMPLETELY shutting down any semblance of a San Francisco ground game, holding Frank Gore to 24 rushing yards on 12 carries and forcing Troy Smith to run 5 times for 45 yards.
But then came Baltimore. The Ravens were 7-3, and behind 289 passing yards from Joe Flacco, they defeated the Buccaneers for their 8th win of the season. Tampa Bay got a late touchdown (a pass from Freeman to Kellen Winslow), but the damage was done. The Bucs wouldn't be getting this win against Baltimore. After that, the Bucs returned home to play the Falcons in a rematch of the Week 9 game in Atlanta. The Bucs took a 24-14 lead in the 4th quarter...and then what? Decided to start preparing for the next week's game in DC? Thought it might be a good idea to let Matt Ryan and the Falcons back into the game? Whatever the reason, Tampa Bay blew a 10-point advantage in the 4th Quarter; their fate sealed by a Brent Grimes INT on Tampa Bay's final drive.
At 7-5, the Bucs were in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs. They had lost every single game against a team with a winning record, and they were 0-3 against the teams at the top of their division. However, the run defense had improved, only giving up a single 100 yard rusher (Mike Goodson) in their last 4 games. The home stretch lay ahead; Tampa Bay would face three teams with losing records and just one with a winning record (New Orleans 2.0).
Week 14: Tampa Bay 17, Washington 16
Week 15: Detroit 23, Tampa Bay 20
Week 16: Tampa Bay 38, Seattle 15
Week 17: Tampa Bay 23, New Orleans 13
Tampa Bay, after somewhat promising performances by the run defense in their previous three games, got KILLED by Ryan Torain, who ran all over the Buccaneers for 172 yards on 24 carries (a 7.2 YPC). What saved the Bucs? Two missed field goals, and (most importantly) a botched PAT by Graham Gano with 10 seconds remaining.
Who'd Tampa Bay draw after that? The Detroit Lions. Owners of a 26-game road losing streak. A team that had been very competitive in most of its games. A Detroit Lions team down one Matt Stafford. And what did the Buccaneers do? Give up 109 rushing yards to Maurice Morris (on 15 carries). Have the pass defense give up a career day to Drew Stanton. Give up the game-tying field goal as time expired, then give up the game winner in overtime. That's what Tampa Bay did. Detroit snapped its long road losing streak. Tampa Bay suffered its first and only loss to a team that would finish with a sub-.500 record. And in doing so, they had a 100+ rushing yard effort from Blount and one of Josh Freeman's better games all for naught.
Why? Well, the next week, Tampa Bay rolled over Seattle. The Buccaneer defense held Marshawn Lynch to 53 yards rushing (the bulk of which came on a 29 yard carry) on 14 carries. They got a huge offensive outburst from Josh Freeman, who threw a career-best 5 touchdown passes and completed 80.8% of his pass attempts. The Bucs also got a huge game from LaGarrette Blount, who followed up a 110 yard game against Detroit with 164 rushing yards against Seattle (at an impressive 9.1 YPC). When the dust cleared, Tampa Bay had obliterated Seattle 38-15.
In their final game, Tampa was fighting for the 6th seed in the playoffs. But their opponents, the division rival New Orleans Saints, had already sealed up the 5th seed. The Saints rested their starters, Drew Brees in particular, and took one on the chin from the Bucs...and they were still where they'd began the day: the 5th seed in the NFC. Tampa Bay? Out of the playoffs, in favor of the Green Bay Packers, who would go on to win the Super Bowl.
But the Buccaneers were 10-6. They had massively improved on their record from the previous season. There were areas to improve; run defense in particular, along with an ugly 1-5 record against teams with winning records.
What lies ahead?