Bucs should play up underdog role

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are three-point favorites for Sunday's NFC Wild Card game. But the players don't feel that way. After a season of being picked to finish last in their division, the Bucs say they're used to getting little respect nationally. And that's fine, they say. They'll play the role of the underdog as long as the NFL world will let them.

TAMPA — I won't lie to you (mainly because if you're smart enough, you can find my preseason prediction and find that I picked the Bucs to finish 6-10).

I didn't expect much from this Tampa Bay Buccaneers team.

I wasn't alone. If you have plenty of time on your hands, try and get your hands on all the football preview predictions you can muster. I would predict — and probably accurately — that none of them picked the Buccaneers to win the NFC South.

But they did, and entering Sunday's NFC Wild Card playoff game against the New York Giants, the Buccaneers are squarely in the role of underdog.

Yes, I know Las Vegas prognosticators have installed the Buccaneers as a three-point favorite. But this is more about perception. Tampa Bay is coming off a 4-12 season, so their division title is a surprise. The Bucs have a worse record (9-7) than the Giants (10-6), and the Giants are coming off a moral victory in a 38-35 loss to New England.

The Bucs are coming off two straight losses and three losses in their final four games.

Vegas may like their odds, but by the end of the week most NFL experts won't like the Bucs' odds to cover the spread, much less win.

"Why should they start picking us now?" Bucs tight end Alex Smith said. "We've been underdogs the whole season."

Local fans may scoff at being the underdog to the Giants, who are making their third straight playoff appearance. But Smith doesn't. He doesn't seem to mind playing his football with a little chip on his shoulder.

"When you're the favorite you relax," Smith said. "The underdog has nothing to lose."

And when have these Bucs had time to relax?

After losing Carnell Williams and Luke Petitgout for the season?

After losing two straight to Detroit and Jacksonville?

After handing the offense over to players like Earnest Graham, Luke McCown and Donald Penn?

After rookie Gaines Adams took over as a starter midway through the season?

Relaxation has not been on the agenda at any time this season, even the past two games as head coach Jon Gruden rested some of his key veterans. All that did was lead to questions about momentum.

"I'm not answering any more questions about the past two weeks," Gruden said on Monday.

The regular season is history, every player will tell you. These guys don't ignore the swirl of publicity surrounding a game such as this. But they know their role.

The Giants are perceived as being bigger, faster and stronger than this Buccaneers team. They're perceived to be on a roll and poised for a long playoff run.

And that's fine by the Buccaneers. Perception is almost never the reality. It almost always obscures the truth.

"They don't have to recognize us," receiver Michael Clayton said.

"They" being everyone, like me, that thought 6-10 would be a step forward.

Listen to Bucsblitz.com's Matthew Postins every Tuesday with former Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley on WHBO 1470 ESPN Radio in Tampa and Clearwater from 3-6 p.m. If you miss the show, check out Bucsblitz.com's exclusive team media center for Postins' archived appearances.

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.

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