Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Freeman, Bucs look to seize rare playoff opportunity
It was a negligible mistake, the kind you could easy overlook and move on from. But Josh Freeman felt a need to correct it, without hesitation. "It's six,'' he said when someone who suggested the Buccaneers' second-year quarterback had thrown a paltry seven interceptions this season. Again, it seems almost inconsequential. Until you consider Freeman threw 18 interceptions in nine rookie starts last season and his improvement this year is a big reason the Bucs are still in the playoff hunt. In a league where the turnover battle often decides the outcomes of games, Freeman avoided throwing a pick in seven of the Bucs' nine victories, putting him on a record-setting pace. If Freeman throws fewer than two interceptions in Sunday's regular season finale against the Saints, he will break a Buccaneers team record, set in 2007, for fewest in a season.Three players combined to set the record: Jeff Garcia (four interceptions), Luke McCown (three) and Bruce Gradkowski (one). If it falls, it will be almost all Freeman's work. Freeman has all but 19 of the Bucs' 467 pass attempts this year, and the Pro Bowl alternate credits a greater awareness of the need to protect the ball and the work he put in during the offseason for his stunning turnaround. "There are some interceptions I wish I could have back, and I still have to find a way to correct that, but I feel pretty good about it,'' said Freeman, whose 1.3 interception percentage - a factor of interceptions divided by pass attempts - ranks third in the league behind the Chiefs' Matt Cassel and the Patriots' Tom Brady. "Every year I try to improve and I feel like I've made a pretty good stride in that area this year.'' The Bucs have stayed in lock step with their quarterback all season, rebounding from a dreadful 3-13 campaign to where they are on the cusp of reaching the postseason. Tampa Bay (9-6) needs a win at New Orleans and losses by Green Bay and the New York Giants to claim the NFC's sixth and final playoff spot. While the Bucs are easily the youngest team in the league, one that includes 25 players from the 2010 draft class, there is no shortage of players who have been in this situation before. Fewer are the number of players who succeeded. Tight end Kellen Winslow, for example, has been in the NFL for seven years, yet has never been to playoffs. Tight end John Gilmore has been in the NFL since 2002, but been to the playoffs only twice, most recently in 2006. For several players and coaches, there is a sense of urgency Sunday. "The first year I came into the league, I was with Arizona and we won five games," receiver Micheal Spurlock said. "Then I came here and we went to the playoffs in '07, but I haven't been back since. "It's one of those things where you look back and you say, 'Well, if I could've done this or done that, then maybe we could have gotten there.' So, you've got to seize that opportunity whenever it comes around.'' Freeman, too, is all about seizing the opportunity, but differs in the belief opportunities like this don't come around all that often. "I guess I just have a different mindset,'' Freeman said, "because I feel like if we go about our business the right way and everybody does their job, then we should be in the playoffs every year.'' Veterans such as cornerback Ronde Barber, in his 14th season, say it's normal for young players to think the playoffs are always a possibility, if not a likelihood. A team as young as the Bucs may actually benefit from that approach. "We have a lot of young guys here that don't understand that you might not get back, and that can be a good thing because they're just going out there and having fun,'' Spurlock said. "But there are definitely other guys who are like, 'You don't understand; if we don't get there this year, everything gets erased and then we have to come back next year and start at the bottom and climb back up that hill all over again.' '' Bucs coach Raheem Morris has been a part of a playoff team just twice since joining the Bucs in 2002. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson made the playoffs coaching quarterbacks for the 49ers in 2001, his first year in the league, but hasn't been back. Linebackers coach Joe Baker reached the playoffs coaching special teams with the Jaguars in 1996, his second year in the league, but has yet to return. ''You just don't want to take these opportunities for granted,'' Morris said. Freeman realizes the Bucs have wasted some opportunities to earn a playoff berth - including close losses to Atlanta and Detroit - and looks to make the most of the one chance left. "You'd like to be in a position where you've already clinched and now you're just playing for home-field advantage,'' he said. "Unfortunately, there were some games earlier in the year that we really should have won where we just didn't pull it out. But we still have a chance. It's a slim chance, but we will have a chance to get to the playoffs if we can go into New Orleans and take care of our business.'' That shouldn't be a problem for Freeman. He's been taking care of business, and the ball, all season.