As we approach the 2014 season, I’m trying to decide which two games I want to attend this year. Hopefully, the Bucs will still have a legitimate shot at the playoffs during whichever games I attend, and maybe I’ll even out my 0-2 record. Regardless, these games will not be the Josh Freeman Show I witnessed against the Rams in 2012 during my first experience at Raymond James Stadium, nor will the crowd chant "Schiano must go!" like it did during the garbage that was our Thursday night game against Carolina last year. The Bucs’ uniforms will be different. The coaching staff will be different. The Bucs may actually look like- dare I say?- a professional football team. I’m hoping this year, I get at least one exciting winning experience. Tampa has the potential to be a solid team that could challenge any of our division rivals. To help me decide which games to go to, I made a list of the 2014 home games and my rankings of which has the most potential for excitement:
Week 1, September 07 4:25 Carolina (2)
What’s more exciting than Kickoff Sunday? Kickoff Sunday against last year’s division winner under a new regime after what seems like an excellent offseason. This will be our first real look at what this defense can do with Lovie’s coaching and some new toys, especially Michael Johnson and Alterraun Verner. In 6 career games against Tampa Bay, Cam Newton has 10 passing touchdowns and 6 rushing. Newton and the Carolina offense should be a good test to see how our new defense will look. This game will also be our first look at the Dunkaneers in action. McCown should be the leader of the squad, but I wouldn't be too surprised with Glennon starting either. Kuechly and the League of Super Best Friends Last year’s second best defense will be a tough opponent for our new look offense, especially with the concerns of the offensive line, but seeing Mike Evans, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and possibly Charles Sims and Robert Herron in action for the first time should be exciting, especially in the red zone. Regardless of who’s at the helm, I’m excited to see Jeff Tedford’s offense on the field for the first time. This should be an exciting start to a new season and era.
Week 2, September 14 4:05 St. Louis (5)
Ah, St. Louis- a team that has outscored us 51-26 the last two times we met. The Rams are stacked with young talent and potential stars on both sides of the ball. Their defensive line is scary and will be another great test early on for the Bucs’ new offense. The Rams clocked in at 30th on offense last year, but with Sam Bradford back, a year under Zac Stacy and Tavon Austin’s belts, and a new guy protecting them, they have some potential. Also, with the help of Lovie Smith and Joe Cullen, Gerald McCoy could have his best game yet against old Sooner teammate, Bradford. Finally, Derrick Brooks is going into the Ring of Honor at half time, and who would want to miss a chance at seeing one of the greatest Buccaneers of all time being honored?
Week 6, October 12 1:00 Baltimore (8)
Not that this game won’t be exciting, but being a non-conference game against a non-playoff team puts this game behind the others for me. The Ravens rushing attack was dreadful last year, averaging 83 yards a game (even the Bucs topped that by 17.8) and ranking 30th in the NFL. I don’t see that getting much better this year. Joe Flacco and the passing offense is pretty good though, so week 6 should be a good measure of how well Verner, Banks, and the rest of Lovie’s passing defense are coming together. Despite losing some big stars on defense, the Ravens still ranked 12th defense YPG, so this game should provide some good matchups on both sides of the ball. The last time we beat Baltimore in the regular season was week 2 of 2002. Hopefully, that losing streak will end here. Coming off three straight road games, snatching a win before the bye week would be great.
Week 8, October 26 1:00 Minnesota (7)
Coming off the bye week, Minnesota is coming to town. Cassel? Ponder? Bridgewater? Who knows who will start at quarterback? One thing we know for sure is they have a pretty good running back. Even when the Bucs played in Minnesota in 2012 when we had the best rush defense in the league, Adrian Peterson still managed 123 yards, including a 64 yard touchdown (good thing I started him that week). Luckily, we have a couple coaches who are familiar with the guy in Lovie Smith and Lezlie Frazier. On the other side of the ball, they ranked 31st in yards and 32nd in points allowed last year and they lost Jared Allen in free agency, so unleash the Dunkaneers.
Week 10, November 09 1:00 Atlanta (3)
Atlanta in November? Sign me up. Last year, Atlanta, like Tampa Bay, finished 4-12 despite offseason hype. Their problems, though, came from injuries and terrible line play. While they were atrocious last year, I can see them matching that win total coming into this matchup. They’re Atlanta, they’re in our division, and they’re always a threat. That being said, I don’t see them turning things around and winning the division in one year. On offense, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are great, but other than that do they have that much? In the offseason they acquired Devin Hester and Jake Matthews, but Lovie should know Hester’s tendencies and Matthews is not going to be an all-pro right away. At 28th last year, I don’t see their defense improving that much in 2014. Finally, with Tony Gonzalez gone, I can’t wait to see our big tight end extend drives with third down conversion to wear down the Atlanta defense.
Week 13, November 30 1:00 Cincinnati (6)
After a couple games on the road- including Lovie’s return to Chicago- Tampa finishes November at home. This game has potential to be a good one- two fairly young teams at the end of November. We should at least be fighting for a wild card spot here. Though this is a non-conference game, it can be an exciting one with some interesting matchups. Andy Dalton and the Bengals o-line against Gerald McCoy, Michael Johnson, maybe Clayborn or Bowers? Then we have the AJ Green vs Verner matchup which will be tough but manageable if our line can get to Dalton and Goldson and Barron step up this year. On the other side of the ball, though, the Bengals were top five in points, yards, passing yards, and rushing yards allowed last year. They did lose Johnson, but Geno Atkins coming back could still mean trouble from that d-line. They also lost James Harrison but still have a lot of talent on defense. The Bengals secondary should be a formidable opponent for the Dunkaneers. Though this game is non-conference, every game counts.
Week 16, December 21 1:00 Green Bay (4)
In recent years, Tampa always seemed to play better than expected against Green Bay. Even in 2011 during the 10-game losing streak, the Bucs stayed with the undefeated Packers through the fourth quarter. Although Lovie Smith knows Green Bay after nine years of division rivalry, our head coach does not have a good record against the Packers at 8-11, having lost six straight including playoffs. Being week 16, Green Bay and Tampa Bay could be fighting for a wild card spot or even home-field advantage. However, with Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay is always a tough opponent. With Brady and Manning both closer to 40 than 30 and now with a running game in Eddie Lacy, Rodgers could reclaim his spot at best passer in football next year. This means Tampa would have to be playing its best football in December for us to have a chance, but the last time we had a winning record in December was 2005. The Packers defense was awful last year, but with the additions of Julius Peppers and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, they may be decent. Regardless of the Green Bay defense though, this should be a great game. December weather is usually pretty nice, this game is already sold out, and our defense should have molded enough by this point for us to have a shot at beating one of the best quarterbacks in the game right now. Also, this game has some history with Green Bay being an old division rival.
Week 17, December 28, 1:00 New Orleans (1)
The last game of the season- or hopefully the last game of the regular season- against a division rival. Not just any division rival, though. We finish our season against the beloved New Orleans Saints. I’m already tired of the offseason Drew Brees hype and football is still three months away. This game has the potential to be the most meaningful game for the Bucs in years, but it could also be another meaningless week 17, in which our best case scenario is a moral victory and the worst is another 42-17 loss. This game could decide the NFC South. Quite frankly, I’m tired of losing to Drew Brees, Sean Payton, and the New Orleans Saints. The last time Tampa beat New Orleans was Raheem Morris’ last win as a head coach. On offense, they drafted another weapon for Brees in Brandon Cooks, but they also lost Lance Moore and Darren Sproles which is huge. Also, the Jimmy Graham contract talks could affect his impact, but Brees believes they’ll be an offensive powerhouse with or without Graham. On defense, Roman Harper and Will Smith are gone, but the Saints signed one of the best safeties in the game in Jairus Byrd. They also picked up Champ Bailey, but he’ll be 36 when the season starts. With the skill Tampa has on both sides of the ball, this can be an exciting game. However, I want this game to be more than exciting. I want us to get to Drew Brees so much that he won’t even think to ask for a flag on a sack. I want the Dunkaneers and speed in space to cause so much trouble for Rob Ryan that all he can do is make disappointed faces on the sideline for the internet to turn into funny gifs. I want our D-line to be so disruptive that Drew Brees and the Saints offensive line will wish they still had Darren Sproles to run quick screens to. I want us to blow them out at home and end their season early in a game that ultimately does not affect our playoff seed that much but is still fun to watch. We may have the potential to do all of that, but even I know that’s too much to ask. All I can really ask for is a win against the Saints.
Earlier this week, I bought tickets to the Rams game. What sold it was the Derrick Brooks entrance to the Ring of Honor (and bobble head). That man was in his prime when I became a football fan and he was a beast. Players like Brooks only come maybe once every couple decades, so I didn’t want to miss an opportunity like this. I’m in the process of looking into tickets for the Saints game, but I may wait to see what our on-field product will look like first (though I know it won’t be as disappointing as last year).