TAMPA BAY - The Buccaneers of Tampa Bay have much in common with their Major League Baseball cousins.
The Rays, who play their home games in St. Petersburg, some 25 miles to the south, find themselves in the hardest division in baseball, the American League East, and to reach the playoffs they have to overcome the New York Yankees and/or the Boston Red Sox.
The Bucs, meanwhile, find themselves in the tough-as-nails NFC South and, to reach the playoffs, they have to finish ahead of the Atlanta Falcons and/or New Orleans Saints.
Both Tampa Bay teams also sport plenty of youth and not a lot in the way of fans. So they have that in common as well.
While the Rays have had more in the way of recent success, the Bucs took a giant step forward last year when they finished with a 10-6 record but missed the playoffs due to the tie-breaker formula.
Still, given the fact that they had all of three wins the year before (2009), last year has to be looked on as a giant step forward.
“It depends on how you look at success,” Bucs centre Jeff Faine, a nine-year veteran countered Friday following practice. “We set a goal early in the season (in 2010) of winning 10 games. We thought that’s what we needed to do to get into the playoffs. We reached our goal by getting 10 wins but we didn’t reach our goal of getting into the playoffs.
“The way I look at it is that looking at (2009), I think there’s some success and it is a building block for this year. Now our goal is just to get into the playoffs, regardless. We’re not setting a number. We just feel like we have to go out and win every game we can. And it’s important to win the division games obviously.
“We view 2010 as successful from the year before but we didn’t reach all of our goals.”
Donald Penn, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound offensive tackle agrees with his linemate.
“We can take a little bit from it but the main objective is to get into the playoffs every year,” said the six-year veteran. “In that we fell short.
“But we exceeded our expectations and in any other conference, you get 10 wins, you’re in (the playoffs). It was a little disappointing that we didn’t make the playoffs because we worked so hard and were so close and the thing is that’s going to drive us a little more this year. We saw what Green Bay did (they were the team that beat them out of a playoff spot in the tie-breaker) and that could have been us. So that gives us a lot of motivation.”
On Sunday, the Bucs have their first division matchup and it comes against last year’s AFC South champ, the Atlanta Falcons.
Last year the Bucs dropped both meetings, losing 27-21 in Atlanta and then blowing the return match at home when they led at the half only to come up on the short end of a 28-24 score.
Both Faine and Penn know what it will take for the Bucs to reverse those outcomes and achieve their goal of making the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Surprisingly, both players didn’t think it would take a big upgrade in talent as much as a maturation process.
“I don’t think we have to play better, we have to play consistent,” Faine said. “Our best is good enough but we have to play at our best more often.
“I think that’s the difference between great teams and good teams. I think we were a good team last year. We weren’t great. We have to play more consistent and we haven’t done a good job of that this year. We have to improve on that as we go through the season.”
Once again, Penn agreed.
“We need to stay healthy and we need to improve on our consistency, we’ve got to be able to bring it all the time,” he said when asked what has to improve. “We started slow last week (they trailed the Vikings 17-0 at the half but pulled out a 24-20 win) and we started slow the week before that (in a 27-20 loss to Detroit). We have to be more consistent. Once we get more consistent and get everything rolling, we’re going to be a good team.”
In this conference, though, as last year showed, good doesn’t cut it.
In the AFC South, just as the Rays know from being in the AL East, you have to be one of the best.
The Bucs get a shot at taking that next step on Sunday.