- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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TAMPA, Fla. -- He is mature way beyond his years, but there are times when you’re reminded that Josh Freeman is 22 years old and in his first full season as an NFL starting quarterback.
Take the case of what happened Wednesday when Freeman was asked if he can appreciate and enjoy the fact the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team no one on the outside expected much of anything from, are headed into the last week of the regular season with a shot at a playoff berth. Some quarterbacks go an entire career without making the playoffs. For others, it takes years to get there.
“Honestly, I can’t appreciate it,” Freeman said. “I have a different mindset. If we go about our business the right way and everybody does their job, we should be in the playoffs every year.”
Heading into New Orleans to play the Saints, who already have clinched a playoff spot and could end up as high as the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the Bucs are 9-6. They need a win and some help to earn a wild-card berth. If they beat, or even tie, the defending Super Bowl champions, the Bucs would need the New York Giants or Green Bay Packers to lose.
The “Race to 10’’ wins that coach Raheem Morris has been talking about all season drew chuckles at first, but it’s a real possibility for the NFL’s youngest team, a team that carries the league’s smallest payroll. You easily could make a case that a 10-win season would be a huge success even if the Bucs didn't make the playoffs. You could even argue that a 9-7 finish by a team some said might win no more than two games would be reason to celebrate.
But Freeman’s not buying into any of that.
“It’s going to mean exactly the same as a 3-13 season if we don’t make the playoffs,” Freeman said. “That’s what we’re all in it for. We’re all in it to try to win championships. That’s our goal. If we don’t make the playoffs it doesn’t matter if we are 3-13 or whatever we are. The season is considered a failure. That’s our mentality and that’s what we’re working for.”
You have to like Freeman’s hunger. But, despite all the strides they made, the Bucs might not get to the playoffs even if they get to 10 wins. They’re probably a year away from that, and this season has shown clearly the one thing they need to do to get over the hump.
They need to beat a good team or two. Take a look at Tampa Bay’s schedule. The Bucs handled the Clevelands, Cincinnatis and Carolinas of the world. But every time an Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Baltimore or New Orleans popped up, they showed they weren’t quite ready to hang with the big boys.
Fans like to talk about how the Bucs don’t get enough national respect, but they bristle when Tampa Bay’s easy schedule is pointed out. There’s one easy way to fix that.
Go out and beat a good team.
The Bucs have that chance in the regular-season finale. The Saints, coming off a huge Monday night win against the Falcons, are 11-4 and still have plenty to play for. A New Orleans win and an Atlanta loss to Carolina would make the Saints the first team in NFC South history to repeat as division champions, and it would give them the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.
The Bucs already have caught the attention of teams like the Saints.
“The thing that’s most impressive is -- at this time of the season all the teams are banged up to some degree so injuries become a big part of the success or failure of a given team. But when you look at the injuries they’ve had, there are seven starters that in the last six weeks are no longer playing because of significant injuries,’’ New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “And yet the next man in has played well for them. They’ve won nine games, which is substantial when you look at what they’ve had to go through. It’s a team that’s young, and yet it’s a team that’s playing with a lot of confidence. When you have a quarterback, that gives you a chance. It’s hard to play with that same confidence if you feel like the guy behind center is struggling or not playing at a high level. Josh is certainly playing at a high level, and to overcome what they’ve had to overcome is pretty impressive.”
There is little question Freeman has carried the Bucs. But they’ve found some other core pieces this season with the emergence of rookie running back LeGarrette Blount, rookie receiver Mike Williams, the steady presence of veteran tight end Kellen Winslow and left tackle Donald Penn and some inspired play by the defense.
It’s easy to sit back and say the Bucs can get all their injured guys back, incorporate another draft class and maybe even sign a few free agents and the real turning point will come next year. They simply could be happy with this season’s success and start looking ahead.
But maybe Freeman’s got a point when he says this season is not done yet. Maybe the Bucs can turn the corner right now instead of waiting until next season. They can’t control what the Giants or Packers do. But maybe they can go out and take the next step on their own. Playoffs or not, beating the Saints finally would show that the Bucs can beat a good team.
This reminds me a little bit of the 1996 season, Tony Dungy’s first as Tampa Bay’s coach. The Bucs started that season 1-8. Dungy, looking toward the future, told his team to pretend it was in a playoff race for the final seven games. The Bucs went 5-2 in that span. They still finished 6-10, but they went into the next season knowing they could win and they became a playoff team in 1997.
The Bucs should treat Sunday’s game in a similar way. Heck, go out and pretend it’s a playoff game. If they win and get some help, they’re in the playoffs this season. If they win and still don’t make the playoffs, they at least have cleared a big hurdle.
If they lose, they start next season viewed as a team on the rise, but a team that hasn’t shown it can beat a good team. A win on Sunday could go a long way toward making the Bucs a playoff team next season.