TAMPA — The NFL does not grade on a curve. A victory against a team near the top of the standings doesn’t count for more than a victory against a team near the bottom.
But just try telling that to some of the game’s most ardent fans and analysts.
Shoot, try telling it to some of the game’s most seasoned veterans — such as linebacker Adam Hayward.
In his seventh season, Hayward is one of the senior statesmen in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ locker room. He’s a special teams captain. And he knows what a victory today against the playoff-seeking 49ers would do for his team.
“It would be great for us, because it would show people that the other victories we’ve had this year weren’t flukes,’’ Hayward said. “It’s a chance to prove to people we’re a legitimate team.’’
The Bucs’ legitimacy has been in question since at least the beginning of the year, when a last-minute loss to the Jets sparked an eight-game losing streak that dragged Tampa Bay out of the playoff race before it was half over.
The Bucs have been trying to regain relevance and respect ever since, but their recent rally has done little to help them, because it was largely the result of beating teams wallowing at the bottom of the standings.
Tampa Bay has won four of its past five games, which is the second-best record in the league over that span, but only one of the victories — at Detroit on Nov. 24 — came against a team that had a winning record at the time.
The others came against a Miami team that was 4-4 and in turmoil over a bullying controversy, an Atlanta team that was 2-7, and a Buffalo team that was 4-8.
Toss in their convincing 27-6 loss to the playoff-contending Panthers two weeks ago and you can see why so many are hesitant to say the Bucs have turned a corner and are back on the road to prosperity.
“Yeah, I’ve seen a few things where people have said we’re only beating teams that are struggling, but Detroit was ahead in their division when we beat them, and that didn’t change anything,’’ Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “That’s why I said a few weeks ago that even when we get our first win, it still won’t change (the perception) people have of us, because people will still just say that we’re whatever.
“That’s why, if we can beat San Francisco, that would be huge. They’re really starting to get back to regular form now, and ever since coach (Jim) Harbaugh has come into the league, they’ve been not just a good team, but a great team.’’
The 49ers, who won five Super Bowls in the 1980s and ’90s, returned to greatness two years ago when they made their first playoff appearance in nearly a decade and advanced to the NFC title game against the Giants. Last year, they played in the Super Bowl, losing to Baltimore.
Today they are on the cusp of reaching the playoffs again.
The 49ers roll into Raymond James Stadium today with a 9-4 record and in a position to clinch their third straight playoff berth with a victory, fueled by their ability to run the ball and play defense.
Led by running back Frank Gore and elusive quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers boast the league’s sixth-ranked rushing attack at 133.2 yards per game.
The Bucs will counter with a rush defense allowing 103.7 yards per game, ninth in the league, but it’s not just their ability to stop the run that has them believing they can pull off an upset.
The Bucs have developed penchants in recent weeks for taking the ball away and getting to the passer. There also is a confidence level on that side of the ball that wasn’t there a few weeks ago.
“As a unit, we’re starting to come together,’’ McCoy said. “We’ve been playing really well, and we bounced back well last week after that loss (two weeks) ago to Carolina. The thing now is to keep that going.’’
It’s not just McCoy who thinks the Bucs have played well defensively. Harbaugh said the likes of McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Darrelle Revis have been playing well for a while now.
“They’ve put together some great games all year,’’ Harbaugh said of the Bucs defense, which ranks 13th overall and leads the league with 21 interceptions.
“What stands out is they’re very talented, well coached, fast and opportunistic. And David has just been outstanding. As you can imagine, he’s got our attention here. He’s developing into a fabulous linebacker.’’
David is not the only young Buccaneer who caught Harbaugh’s eye. The coach also was impressed with the play of rookie quarterback Mike Glennon.
“I think everybody sees that he’s fast developing into a very good quarterback,’’ Harbaugh said. “It’s exciting to see a young player like that make those kind of strides, unless of course you’re playing against him like we are this week.’’
Glennon was developing some legitimacy of his own until two weeks ago, when he suddenly hit a slump that caused his ninth-rated passer rating to slide from 91.8 to 86.4, which ranks 20th.
An inconsistent rushing attack, shaky pass protection and some questionable decision-making on Glennon’s part contributed to a slide Glennon knows he has to correct if the Bucs are going to legitimize their rally and beat the 49ers.
“All around, at every position you look at, they’ve got first-rounders across the board and are a really talented group,’’ Glennon said of the 49ers defense. “And we know that, so we’re going to have to just keep grinding away and be patient.
“If we don’t score right away, we just have to stay on course and not really worry about it. We know points are important, but we just have to try to get this game to the fourth quarter and take it from there.’’
The Bucs achieved that objective on the road against the league-leading Seahawks last month, but lost in overtime and therefore missed out on a chance to prove they can beat the best the NFL has to offer.
They missed out on another chance two weeks ago at Carolina, but a third opportunity is at hand today. And it’s not just players such as Hayward and McCoy who understand the impact a victory will have on them.
“Anyone who throws a TV game on or reads a newspaper knows the names of the 49ers players,’’ Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. “They’re a really good football team, and obviously what they did in beating Seattle (last week was huge).
“So, they have our respect. But I also know that our guys are going to be ready to play and we’re going to do everything we can to win this game, because if we can win it, it would be a big one for us.’’