Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5 Most Pivotal Games of 2012
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers kick off their regular season in a little over two months and will do so as a completely different team than the one that finished 4-12 last season.
The coaching and roster changes have been well-documented and discussed ad nauseum, but both pale in comparison to the change in culture and attitude that have occurred as a direct result of said changes.
Oh, and there's been a change in fan perception, too.
While the new names and faces have certainly been a welcomed addition, the goodwill that Buc fans have shown thus far will only last as long as the results on the field are different as well.
With that said, I've highlighted five games on their 2012 schedule that could ultimately decide whether the Bucs repeat as division cellar-dwellers or begin their ascent back to respectability.
Week 1 vs. Carolina
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
The opening game for most teams serves as an opportunity to start their season off in the right direction.
For the Bucs, however, their first game—against division rival Carolina—will serve as a barometer for how far they've truly come since the end of the 2011 season.
The memories from the teams' two meetings last year are almost too painful to bring up. The Panthers won both contests, by a combined score of 86-35.
Better yet, since 2006, the Panthers have won eight of 12 games against Tampa Bay.
In short, Carolina should be referred to as the "Glazers" because, well, they own the Bucs.
All kidding aside, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was perhaps the biggest factor in his team's sweep of the two meetings, as he absolutely dominated the Bucs to the tune of four passing touchdowns and three touchdowns rushing.
This opening-week game will not only allow the pewter pirates to show that they are in fact an improved team, but a strong performance will also signal to the rest of the division that the Bucs are not a team to be taken lightly.
And that would be a far cry from 2011.
Week 3 at Dallas
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Much like the Panthers, the Cowboys have bullied around the Bucs of late, winning their previous three contests dating back to 2006 by a combined score of 103-46.
The Bucs would surely like to stop the string of lopsided results, but there is also a little intrigue behind this game in the form of rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne.
Claiborne, as you may recall, was the odds-on favorite to be selected by the Bucs in this past April's draft.
The Bucs, on the other hand, had plans of their own and decided to trade down, ultimately selecting Alabama safety Mark Barron eighth overall.
And while he likely won't admit it—at least publicly—Claiborne would probably love nothing more than to prove that the Bucs drafted the wrong guy by having a huge game for the 'Boys.
The Bucs will likely be in a similar position, trying to show that Barron was the better choice of the two (a claim they have asserted since the draft) by "going after" Claiborne through the air.
A win in this game would certainly position the Bucs for success, as the three games directly following are all home games.
Week 7 vs. New Orleans
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
The Week 7 matchup against New Orleans would be their first since news of "Bountygate" broke early this spring.
It is of particular significance because quarterback Josh Freeman told the Tampa Bay Times, shortly after the scandal came to light, that Bucs players were aware of "cheap shots" routinely delivered by Saints players:
We just knew every time we played the Saints, they were going to take some cheap shots...I mean, it was always something we acknowledged. We knew Greg Williams’ defenses were physical and they were going to get after you. Knowing what we know now, it’s not surprising that was the system that was set up for them...It is what it is. I’d just say it’s not surprising.
How long will the effects of the scandal resonate once the season begins? Likely for the duration of the year, as most broadcast teams are likely to at least mention it at the outset of each televised game.
Perhaps the bigger question is how the Saints players will perform given the black cloud that will hover overhead throughout the season.
Lost in all of the hubbub will be the fact that the Bucs and Saints have maintained a pretty competitive rivalry of late, splitting the season series each of the last four seasons.
Week 10 vs. San Diego
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Some may suggest the reason this game was chosen is due to the fact that former Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson is now a Buccaneer.
However, that is merely a backdrop to what is the main reasoning for the selection: This home game is smack in the middle of a stretch where the Bucs play four of six games on the road. To further illustrate its importance, the Bucs are a paltry 15-25 on the road over the past five seasons.
Chew on that.
In other words, this game is a must-win. Additionally, this game is at the midway point of the season, as the Bucs will have already played eight games prior to this contest.
That said, the Bucs could use this game as a springboard to start off the second half of the season on the right foot.
A loss, on the other hand, could have a devastating effect on the remainder of their season.
Week 17 at Atlanta
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
There is a myriad of reasons why this game is one of the five most pivotal of the season for the Bucs.
For one, there is the possibility—albeit remote—that the Bucs could very easily be fighting for a winning record.
And while I have yet to predict how many wins and losses the Bucs will have in 2012, I believe there is little question as to the importance of winning divisional games.
Whether its bragging rights, division standings or just a general disdain for the other teams, there is never a lack of drama when it comes to divisional play.
Regardless of the records involved.
But perhaps no reason is as important as the fact that, if you're the Bucs, you would like to end the season on a positive note
Contrary to last season, when they finished on a 10-game losing streak.