Prime-Time Possibilities

The NFL will reveal its 2013 regular-season schedule on Thursday – timing this big announcement exactly one week before the offseason’s biggest event, the draft – and there’s a lot to look forward to.  That’s 256 long-awaited pieces of information, all dropped at exactly the same time, to a public hungry for any and all NFL news.

Buc fans are eager to find out quite a few specifics on Thursday.  Where will the season start?  When do those dang Falcons come to town?  How soon will we get a chance for revenge against the Eagles?

Here’s another question: When will we be able to watch the Bucs in prime time?

Thanks to the expanded NFL Network Thursday night schedule, which began last year, every team in the league is guaranteed at least one nationally-televised prime-time game.  For the Bucs last year, that was a Week Eight Thursday-nighter at Minnesota, which proved to be the team’s first prime-time win on the road since 2003.

Will the Bucs get another Thursday-night date in 2013, or will the promise the team showed in 2012 lead to a return to Monday Night Football?  Or, could we hope, both?  Anything is possible and all will be revealed on Thursday evening at 8:00 p.m. ET (check at that exact minute for the reveal).

That leaves a little time for speculation.  The schedule-makers are done at this point, but let’s offer some hypothetical help as to where and when to put the Buccaneers in the national spotlight this fall.  Here are the CB’s top three choices for the Tampa Bay games that would make for great prime-time material in 2013.

3. Tampa Bay at Seattle

That groan you just heard came from the suite of coaches’ office at One Buccaneer Place.  Nobody – repeat, NOBODY – who actually coaches or plays in the NFL wants to play a prime-time game on the road on the opposite side of the country.  Cross-country trips aren’t particularly relished in the first place, and a night game on the road far from home makes from some hairy traveling.  The Bucs would likely get back from a game like this somewhere around dawn the next day, which already puts a crimp in the next week’s plans.  That is mitigated somewhat if this is a Thursday night game, but we’re holding out hope for an MNF affair in these scenarios.

One can’t blame the coaches for how they would feel about this game, but it would be a very intriguing matchup.  The Buccaneers and Seahawks came into the NFL together in 1976, as the league’s 27th and 28th franchises, respectively, but they have had a relatively slight head-to-head history.  Even though they strangely faced off every year from 2006-10, the two teams have only 11 total meetings in 37 shared seasons.

Only one of those was in prime time, a Sunday-night 20-10 Bucs win at Raymond James Stadium in 2008.

Now, we’re not here to suggest that the fact that the Bucs and Seahawks were expansion twins nearly four decades ago would interest a national audience.  But it would be a nice side story to a legitimately intriguing matchup.  The Seahawks were one of the NFL’s most interesting stories last year, thanks to rookie QB Russell Wilson and a somewhat unexpected playoff run, and they’re likely to get a couple games before national audiences.  The Bucs possess an awesome and rugged run defense, which could be fun to watch against Beast Mode runner Marshawn Lynch.  Tampa Bay’s new-look secondary features a former NFC West star in Dashon Goldson who is more than familiar with Wilson.  And it’s always fun to watch the Buccaneers’ aggressive defense chase a particularly mobile quarterback.

Meanwhile, you’d have the NFL’s newest offensive threat – Tampa Bay finished ninth in the league ranking’s last year, its highest mark ever – against a defense that led the NFL in fewest points allowed.  Vincent Jackson vs. Richard Sherman.  Josh Freeman against a pass-rush that now includes former Buccaneer Michael Bennett.   There are a lot of angles to this matchup, including a pair of former college coaches at the helm, and it would be fun to see them play out on a Sunday or Monday night.

Now if we could just sell the schedule-makers on that 1976 connection, this one could happen.

2. Philadelphia at Tampa Bay

This one is a natural because new Eagles Head Coach Chip Kelly was rumored to be a Buccaneer candidate a year earlier before the team went with Greg Schiano.  Even without that presumed connection, there’s a lot of scrutiny on college-to-pro team generals these days – Schiano’s fine first year helped quiet that issue a little bit – so there should be some interest in two such coaches going against each other.

In addition, the memory of last year’s Week 14 meeting, which the Eagles won on the game’s final play at the end of a nearly impossible last-minute drive, remains strong for the Buccaneers.  The Bucs went from 6-4 in November to a seat outside the dance hall in January due to a string of mostly close losses, and none hurt more than the Nick Foles-led comeback in Week 14.

There is far more history than that between these two teams, however.  Fate brought them together multiple times in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, culminating in the most important Eagles contest the Bucs have ever played, the 2002 NFC Championship Game.  Tampa Bay won that won on the way to the Lombardi Trophy and also beat the Eagles in Philly the next September in the first regular-season game ever played at Lincoln Financial Field.

These are two extremely interesting squads, to boot.  Kelly inherits a club that has questions at quarterback – will it be Foles, a returning Michael Vick or some as-yet-to-be-identified entry into the derby – but a whole lot of scary offensive weapons, including LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson.  The Eagles’ defense collapsed dramatically in the wake of the whole ‘Dream Team’ story but will have a totally new look in 2013, including the addition of the fourth pick in next week’s draft.

The last two games between the Buccaneers and Eagles at Raymond James Stadium have finished in 23-21 scores, with the final points being scored on the very last play of the game.  Whether it was an unfathomable Matt Bryant 62-year field goal in 2006 or Jeremy Maclin’s sliding catch in the corner of the end zone last year, it was an outcome of inches.  We put this sucker on prime time in 2013 betting it happens again.

1. Tampa Bay at St. Louis

This is for the Buccaneer purists.

No, a Bucs-Rams rivalry isn’t particularly natural.  The two teams have never been in the same division and until a move to Missouri in the mid-90s, they were located a whole continent apart.  The Rams have always had the 49ers.  The Bucs had NFC Central foes like Green Bay and then new squads to like in the NFC South, such as the Falcons.

But the Bucs-Rams rivalry heated up in a hurry in 1999 when the Greatest Show on Turf suddenly ran into its nemesis.  The Rams looked like they were rolling to the Super Bowl title in ’99 (and, to be fair, they did ultimately raise the Lombardi) until the Buccaneers came to St. Louis for the NFC Championship Game.  The result was a classic, as the Bucs’ incredible defense somehow shut down a team that had been averaging more than 30 points a game, only to see that very offense find just enough to win it in the end.  The next year, the Bucs gained a measure of revenge in a December Monday-night shootout that many consider the best regular-season game in franchise history, and several other exciting prime-time games followed.

At the moment, the Rams have the upper hand, having won in Tampa last December, and that can’t sit well with emerging team leader Gerald McCoy, a former OU teammate of St. Louis QB Sam Bradford.  It was another tight, tough loss for the Bucs in the second half last year, and that alone might be enough to rekindle the passion the Bucs-Rams rivalry was known for about a decade ago.

As for the NFL schedule-makers, this is a chance to hedge their bets.  The Bucs finished 7-9 last year and the Rams were 7-8-1, both making significant moves upward under new coaches from a tough 2011 campaign.  There are always teams that emerge from around .500 to serious contenders – such as Seattle last year – and the Buccaneers and Rams are two obvious candidates.  If both hit, and if this game was scheduled late enough, it could be a serious boon for whichever network got the prime-time rights.

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