TAMPA — Is momentum overrated?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are about to find out.
Momentum was all the rage after Tampa Bay's 31-23 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
As in, did the Buccaneers (9-7) have any entering the playoffs after losing three of their final four games of the regular season?
No one seemed concerned by the slide, propelled in part by the Bucs' desire to rest veteran players for the postseason after clinching the NFC South title three weeks ago.
"No, no concern about that," backup middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said. "We knew the situation this week and we got some young guys some valuable experience and next week all the old heads will be back up ready to roll."
The inactive list for Sunday's game read like a starting lineup — Jeff Garcia, Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard, Earnest Graham and Barrett Ruud were among them. The Bucs had one eye on evaluating younger players like Luke McCown, Chad Lucas, Adam Hayward and Quincy Black and one eye on the New York Giants, their Wild Card game opponent next weekend.
In starting so many younger players, there were execution issues. The Bucs converted just 4-of-12 third downs. They settled for three field goals on drives started in Panthers territory, and two of those drives started off turnovers.
The Bucs (9-7) defense struggled at times on third down, allowing the Panthers (7-9) to convert 7-of-14. Plus, several big plays helped set up three Panthers touchdowns, including a pair by second-year back DeAngelo Williams, who finished with 121 yards rushing.
Having the starters on the field — as the Giants did against the New England Patriots on Saturday night in a 38-35 loss — might have made a difference. But the Giants were seeking to thwart perfection, to spoil the Patriots' historic season.
The Bucs were playing out the string against a divisional opponent, their playoff fate already sealed.
The sacrifice of their overall record may pay off next week in a healthier football team.
"I guess it will all be determined based on what I do next week," Hilliard said. "Coach (Jon) Gruden made the decision to sit a few guys and we have to make them right now."
Reporters peppered Gruden with momentum questions after the game and he scoffed at the perception that the team is sputtering to the finish.
"Momentum is making the playoffs," Gruden said. "When you run out of the tunnel and there's 80,000 fans going crazy, you're going to have momentum. You're going to be excited to play. Momentum is having a quarterback that is your starter, healthy and walking around feeling good. It has a lot to do with momentum. And seeing Joey Galloway run as fast as he can, that's what I see as momentum. I didn't like what we did today or yesterday, but I don't like a lot of things going on in my life and I'll do the best I can to live a perfect life for you, okay?"
Some of the young players and backups distinguished themselves on Sunday. McCown had another solid outing, going 21-of-28 for 236 yards, 2 touchdowns and one interception. The pick was costly though, as Carolina's Richard Marshall picked off a potential game-tying touchdown pass.
Lucas, who was on the practice squad on Wednesday, made his first NFL start and had a team-high five receptions for 82 yards, including a 52-yard bomb that set up the Bucs' first touchdown, a 3-yard pass from McCown to tight end Jerramy Stevens.
Trotter stepped into Ruud's spot and registered eight tackles. Black and Hayward combined for seven tackles, while Black forced a fumble on special teams in the first half that led to a field goal.
But the starters are what will make this team a playoff winner or loser next week. Did Gruden sacrifice preparation for health, or is all just debatable?
Defensive end Kevin Carter, a veteran with several playoff games and a Super Bowl title to his credit, expressed no concerns.
"We're excited," Carter said. "We're ready to go. As far as the discussion about momentum and how you do in the playoffs with or without it, that means nothing. That's just crap you guys are going to write. It's basically just fodder for readers. That's what its there for. That's it."
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.