BALTIMORE - You’ve heard the arguments all season long; you’ve read it on blogs and in papers and heard it on radio and television. Former players, analysts, drive time hosts, and pregame talking heads are all telling you the same thing; that this Buccaneers team is a fraud.
"They haven’t beaten anybody!"
Sure, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have beaten up on lesser opponents all season long and have yet to win a game against a team above .500. But the Bucs can only play the schedule they are given and can’t be faulted for how opponents fare in other games. A win in the NFL is extremely difficult no matter whom you play and teams are often better than their record indicates. The Bucs beat the Browns, who have beaten the Saints and the Patriots. They are 2-0 now on the west coast and shut out the Niners at home for the first time in 33 years. This team came within 1 yard of beating the Falcons in Atlanta. There are plenty of reasons to believe this team is for real.
But the best case the Buccaneers could make is to take down the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday in Baltimore. A win this week silences the critics, it ends the debate, and it puts the Buccaneers firmly on the radar, and at 8-3 it would make the playoffs an almost certainty.
The Ravens are 7-3 like the Bucs and are a true contender in the AFC North (tied for 1st with Pittsburgh) and are a solid all around football team. They have a dynamic running back duo led by Ray Rice that could shred the Buccaneer defensive front, a squad that hopefully has built confidence after completely shutting down Frank Gore last week in San Francisco.
Quarterback Joe Flacco is now in his third year in the system and is attempting to elevate his status to an elite quarterback in the NFL. His development, combined with a power running game and a bolstered receiving core featuring Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and ageless wonder Derek Mason has made the Ravens a formidable offense for the first time in years.
That’s not to say this once defensive juggernaut is any less fearsome on that side of the ball either. Ray Rice is still roaming the secondary and punishing receivers and quarterbacks alike. Ed Reed has returned in fine form looking spry and quicker than ever. Josh Freeman is going to have his work cut out for him this week if he hopes to continue his string of success in Baltimore.
Freeman and company have plenty of reasons for optimism. They are coming off arguably their best all around performance in San Francisco and the team is learning more and getting better each and every week. Baltimore has also struggled at times, narrowly escaping disasters against Cleveland and Buffalo, while Flacco hasn’t looked quite as sharp as he did in the past two seasons and getting on the same page with Boldin has been a challenge.
The Buccaneers are 4-1 away from Raymond James Stadium this year and that is a trend they hope to continue in what is shaping up to be a big week for the NFC South. Division leader Atlanta has a showdown with North division leaders Green Bay Packers, while the New Orleans Saints travel to Dallas to take on the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. The NFC playoff picture could be a lot different come Monday.