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TAMPA, Fla. – St. Louis is clinging to slim playoff hopes, while Tampa Bay is already assured of missing the NFL postseason for the fifth straight year.
Nevertheless, the struggling Buccaneers (6-8) join the improved Rams (6-7-1) in agreeing that both teams have plenty to play for in what's left of seasons under new coaches.
Jeff Fisher has instilled confidence in a team that hasn't earned a postseason berth since 2004 in St. Louis. Greg Schiano had the Bucs in the hunt for a spot until last week's 41-0 loss to New Orleans ended any chance of extending their season for the first time since 2007.
"Coach Fisher's impact has been huge. ... I think one of the biggest things is the overall change in attitude of this team, and of this locker room," Rams quarterback Sam Bradford said of the former Tennessee Titans coach who inherited a team that stumbled to a 2-14 finish last year.
"It's hard to explain. ... But he's such a confident guy and a confident coach. Just watching him, the way he carries himself in meetings, during practice, during the game. Never loses his cool. He's always calm, he's always collected," Bradford added. "It seems like he always knows what his next move is, and he's always very confident in that next move. I think that really carries over to our team and our locker room."
The Rams won three straight, including an overtime victory over NFC West rival San Francisco, to surge into contention after a 3-6-1 start. Last week's 36-22 loss to Minnesota damaged their playoff prospects, however, they can still step a significant step forward by closing strong against Tampa Bay and Seattle.
"Obviously our playoff chances are slim right now, but we can still have a winning season if we win these next two. And, if we beat Seattle ... we can go undefeated in our division," Bradford said. "So there's still a lot left for us to play for. We're still coming with the same attitude we've had all year. This is the most important game of our season right now."
Like St. Louis, Tampa Bay put together a winning streak to rebound from a slow start to get back in the playoff race. The Bucs won four straight to climb to 6-4, but have not played well during a four-game skid that's left them hoping to win the final two games to avoid a losing record.
Josh Freeman threw four interceptions and lost a fumble at New Orleans in one of the worst performances of his career. But the fourth-year pro remains confident the Bucs can pull out of the tailspin and finish on a positive note against the Rams and NFC South rival Atlanta.
Schiano's message to players following last Sunday's blowout loss to the Saints was that they remain united and committed to improving, to weather the adversity.
Freeman said he embraces the challenge of leading the team through hard times.
"Everybody has their own style of leadership, but to the best of my ability I try to convey the message of do your job, sacrifice for your brothers," said Freeman, who's thrown for 25 touchdowns against 12 interceptions.
"In this league nothing's promised, nothing's guaranteed. You have to go out and every week give it all you've got. ... At the end of the year when you look back and reflect, there's going to be a lot of stuff that you look at and say: 'Man, we were that close,'" Freeman added. "At the same time, this is a new team. There are a lot of new pieces. ... You just have to continue to get better. That's the one thing you've got to focus on."
Schiano said he hasn't detected any signs of quit in a young team that's been tested by injuries and suspensions of key players.
"There's a lot of belief in those guys, a lot of togetherness, a lot of 'we're going to do our best.' And that's all you can do is do your best. You do your best and see where that stacks up against your opponent. What gets you is when you don't do your best. That's where you get aggravated and frustrated," Schiano said.
The first-year coach stressed that he will play the final two games to win, not evaluate young players or rest players who've already proven they have futures in the organization.
"We're in the early phases of the development of this program. Part of that is learning how to win and win consistently. So that's my No. 1 and only goal," Schiano said. "This is a win-now league, and this is a win-now coach. We are going to try to win Sunday. That's what we're here to do."
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