The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in a bit of a slide, trying to stay competitive in a division that already has two solid playoff contenders. They can no longer afford to lose games they've labeled as "must-wins."
Sounds like exactly the spot the Washington Redskins were in a week ago.
The Redskins failed miserably, of course, falling 31-7 to the New York Giants to drop to 5-7. The defeat put Washington in play-out-the-string mode literally overnight, with players now talking about auditioning for jobs and finishing strong to kick-start some sort of momentum for next year.
The Buccaneers, despite their first two-game losing streak of the season, would seem to be in a much better spot with their 7-5 mark, but they're staring up at both Atlanta (10-2) and New Orleans (9-3) in the NFC South. In fact, they'd be in third place in every NFC division except the woeful West.
So it's time for the Bucs to stop the skid or start thinking about 2011. They are 7-0 against teams that are .500 or worse, and they'll go for 8-0 when they face the Redskins on Sunday.
"It's not something we go into as a desperation thing," second-year quarterback Josh Freeman said. "It's kind of 'Let's get 'em because we can."'
Should Tampa Bay fail to make the playoffs, the season won't be seen as a failure. They've already won more than twice as many games as last season's 3-13 squad, and they have the youngest roster in the NFL. With rookies accounting for more than half of their touchdowns (15 of 29), it's hard not to envision bright days ahead on the west coast of Florida.
"We don't look at ourselves as a young team," said second-year cornerback E.J. Biggers, who moves into the starting lineup following last week's season-ending injury to Aqib Talib. "We're a team that plays hard, fast and consistent. You play like that, you have a chance to win every week."
With so much youth, it's inevitable to conclude that the Bucs have hit the rookie wall.
"It's obviously a long season," Freeman said. "It's my first complete season going through as a starter. You just have to go into it with more of a vigorous approach when it comes to preparation and film study because it is a long season. You tend to not be as sharp because of the length of the season, but I feel like I haven't missed a beat from Week 1. We've continued to improve, continued to prepare and game-plan. I'm feeling good, feeling fresh right now."
The Redskins would like to share such optimism, both short-term and long-term. They have the oldest roster in the NFL and need upgrades nearly everywhere. Their main positive this week is that they finally rid themselves of the Albert Haynesworth headache. The two-time All-Pro tackle was suspended Tuesday without pay for the rest of the season by coach Mike Shanahan for "conduct detrimental to the club," creating a liberating feeling in the locker room.
"No need to talk about him any more," defensive lineman Phillip Daniels said. "It's time for us move forward and get this team where we need to be. We're a team that's desperate for a win, and that's what we need to do."
Shanahan is still trying to weed out the keepers from the discards in his first season in Washington, and the last quarter of the season will help determine the look of the roster next year.
"These last four games are definitely critical," cornerback Phillip Buchanon said, "because those are definitely evaluation times as far as for coaches to look at stuff and for you to least go out with a bang."
Tampa Bay's goals for this season remain much higher, at least for one more week.
"We're definitely still hungry," rookie running back LeGarrette Blount said. "We're not satisfied with just a winning record. We want to get 10-plus wins and get to the playoffs."