TAMPA—Jovan Haye did not make the trip to Charlotte a couple Mondays ago due to a knee sprain.
Tampa Bay's unsung tackle on the defensive front suffered the injury late in the game a week earlier, a 19-13 home win against Minnesota, as the Buccaneers held NFL red-hot rushing leader Adrian Peterson in check and handed the Vikings their lone loss over the past seven games.
Next Up For The Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Next Up For The Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Season Record: 3-12
Next Game: Jan 3,
vs Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Last Game: Dec. 27,
d. New Orleans 20-17 OT
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"It was hard," Haye said.
Sort of like watching one of those documentaries about lions; except the Bucs were the wildebeests.
The Panthers rushed for 299 yards in a 38-23 rout that halted Tampa Bay's four-game win streak. Along the way, Carolina trampled Bucs defensive lineman Chris Hovan, sending the starting nose tackle to the sidelines with his own knee injury.
Last week, Hovan was in street clothes at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Haye suited up but probably shouldn't have, and was pulled after five plays. The Falcons gashed the Bucs for another 175 rushing yards and won 13-10 in overtime to tie up the standings for second place in the South.
And now comes LaDainian Tomlinson.
"We weren't at our best for those two games and it was tough because I wasn't there to help my team," Haye said. "But all we can worry about now is to be at our best for these last two."
Only a season depends on it.
Two straight losses — and the circumstances surrounding those defeats, especially on the defensive side of the ball — have diminished what Coach Jon Gruden's team accomplished through November. But seemingly lost in the dust of those 474 rushing yards is the fact the Bucs (9-5) can still make the playoffs by beating the surging San Diego Chargers (6-8) today and the awful Oakland Raiders next week. And both games are at home.
"I'm excited about where we are," Gruden said. "Get in the tournament and anything can happen."
The New York Giants proved that last season from the No. 5 spot in the NFC.
Right now, though, they can only worry about the Chargers, who need a third straight win to keep their playoff aspirations alive. They'll come in with league's No. 1 passer in Philip Rivers and a runner in Tomlinson who can do every bit the damage of DeAngelo Williams and Michael Turner.
"I think there's been a little bit of orneriness within the whole defensive front," position coach Todd Wash said. "Statistically, they've dropped significantly against the run and that's something they take a lot of pride in."
The Bucs started the month ranked No. 8 against the run at 95.4 yards per game. They'll start today ranked 20th at 115.6 per game.
But they'll also start with Haye and Hovan healthy and back in the lineup. That'll make for more quality snaps across the defensive line, including backups Jimmy Wilkerson and Ryan Sims, who weren't used to the 50-60 snaps they had to take in starting roles the last couple of weeks.
"That's not normal for us," Wash said. "Our rotation usually has guys fresh for the fourth quarter."
An unplanned tweak to that routine should have Haye and Hovan especially fresh for the final period today.
But just as eager to play first.
"Sitting out last week got me ready for this week," Hovan said. "We were looking for longevity down the line."
Right now, it's a two-week season.
How's that for longevity?
Chris Harry's NFL in FLA blog can be read at OrlandoSentinel.com/nflinfla and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.