TAMPA, Fla. - A year removed from finishing with their worst record in more than a decade, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not in a charitable mood when it comes to talking about the Atlanta Falcons.
The NFC South leaders can clinch the division championship and playoff berth that comes with it by beating their struggling rivals today. That's more than enough motivation to keep the Bucs (8-5) focused on their own business.
No one argues that going 4-12 and missing the playoffs for the third time in four years was more difficult to endure than what the Falcons (3-10) have gone through this year in watching suspended star Michael Vick fall from grace, then first-year coach Bobby Petrino suddenly resign with three games left in the season.
It's just that there's rarely room for compassion when it comes to an opposing team's predicament.
'Over the years we've had our fair share of distractions, so as far as I'm concerned this game is about us, not about what's going on in Atlanta,' Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said bluntly.
'We expect their best effort, regardless. No matter what the circumstances are, we expect them to come out and play hard. Knowing what's on the line for us will give them something to rally around.'
An already miserable season got even tougher for the Falcons last Monday when Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring. Hours later, the team was embarrassed on the field during a 34-14 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
On Tuesday, Petrino stunned the players and owner Arthur Blank by quitting to return to the college game at Arkansas.
Defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas was named interim coach and will make his debut today after 26 years as an NFL assistant with the Falcons, Cardinals, Redskins, Eagles, Packers and Vikings.
'We have to rally around Emmitt,' Falcons running back Warrick Dunn said. 'We all respect him. He played in this league. He coached in this league a long time. He understands the players. I think they made a good choice to let him lead this team, and hopefully we can rally around him and do some positive things.'
Dunn, along with cornerback DeAngelo Hall, was among the players most critical of the way Petrino elected to leave. He used words like 'coward' and 'classless' to describe the departure, but also said now it's time to move on.
Petrino left a brief letter in the locker for each player, informing them of his decision.
'He wasn't a people's person. He wasn't the one who was going to reach out and talk to you all the time,' Dunn said.
'He tried to get better at it, I'll say that, but it's pretty much accurate when you hear the reports that he didn't get along with veterans or the atmosphere here. I'm sure everyone in the building is upset, but at the same time, they're probably cheering, because they're no longer walking on eggshells.'
The Bucs wasted an opportunity to wrap up the division title when they lost 28-14 at Houston last week. Quarterback Jeff Garcia is set to return after missing the past two games because of a bruised lower back.
Tampa Bay beat Atlanta 31-7 four weeks ago and is looking to improve to 5-0 in the division. The Bucs were 0-6 against NFC South rivals in 2006.
'They'd like nothing more than to have a chance to keep that division title away from us, so it's real important for us to focus on what we have to do,' said Garcia, replaced the previous two weeks by Luke McCown.
Like Brooks, the Tampa Bay quarterback expects the Falcons put up a good fight.
'As unfortunate as it is, I've played in two similar situations where with a few games left in the season a coach steps down or gets fired. You have to find a way to carry on,' Garcia said.
'It's not an easy thing. They will deal with it the best that they can. I don't expect them to change a whole lot. It's 13 games into the season. They do what they do. ... They're capable of creating problems, and that's what we have to be aware of and what we have to be ready for.'
For the 64-year-old Thomas, this is what many feel is a long overdue opportunity. He's the first black head coach in Falcons history and described himself as 'excited ... nervous ... and looking forward to it.'
SideBar: Falcons At Buccaneers
When: Today, 1 p.m.
Where: Tampa Bay, Fla.