TAMPA The wheels on the Buccaneers' charter flight out of Minneapolis weren't even up yet last Sunday when left tackle Donald Penn turned to quarterback Josh Freeman to ask a question.
"You know who we got next week, don't you?'' Penn said.
"Sure do,'' Freeman said. "And I want those guys bad.''
Those guys would be the Atlanta Falcons, who saunter into Raymond James Stadium today as not only the reigning NFC South champions but also a source of utter frustration for this crew of young Bucs.
To understand, look no further than the recent series history, which from the Bucs' perspective looks like it was typed by a 3-year-old playing with a keyboard: L, L, L, L, L.
"It's five in a row we've lost to these guys,'' Penn said. "(Right guard) Davin Joseph and I were talking about that on the plane. I asked him, 'When's the last time we beat these guys?' because I can't tell you.''
For the record, it was Sept. 14, 2008. Freeman was still in college, and neither Penn nor Joseph had played in a Pro Bowl. Clearly, a lot has changed on the Bucs' side of the ledger since.
The biggest change has been to the players' psyche. After being in position to beat the Falcons twice last season, the Bucs think they are on equal footing with their division rivals and ready to end their losing streak.
"We're just as good as they are,'' Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib said. "It's not like they beat the … out of us the last two games. It came down to the fourth quarter both times, to situational football.''
In the eyes of many, including a few Falcons, those games came down to one play each time — and the Bucs' failure to execute that play.
The first came during the 27-21 loss in Week 9, when running back LeGarrette Blount failed to follow his blockers and was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1 from the Falcons 2-yard line with 2:44 left to play.
The second came during the 28-24 loss in Week 13, when the Bucs' kick coverage unit failed to stop Falcons return man Eric Weems during a 102-yard return that sparked Atlanta's 14-point rally.
"It's been a play here and a play there,'' Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "Those fourth-and-1s, those kickoff returns, that's what did us in.
"When we get in those situations this time, we have to make sure we have a different outcome, because, whether we want to admit it or not, it was those two losses that kept us out of the playoffs last year.''
With a 13-3 record, the Falcons finished 2010 three games ahead of the Bucs.
Even so, the Bucs were still in the playoff hunt when they lost a Week 15 game to the Lions at home. Tampa Bay lost a tiebreaker to Green Bay for the final NFC wild-card berth.
Still, the notion that a single play was the deciding factor in each of the Bucs' past two meetings with the Falcons is not one that rested solely within the walls of the Bucs' locker room.
"We definitely stole those victories,'' said Bucs punter Michael Koenen, who played for the Falcons before joining the Bucs in August as a free agent. "If one or two plays are different, it's a different ball game both times.''
Koenen could be among the difference makers today. He is the league's seventh-ranked punter with a 49.3-yard average. His five touchbacks through two games are more than the Bucs had all last season. His ability to positively impact field position is why Tampa Bay signed him to a six-year, $19.5 million contract.
The idea, too, was to strengthen the Bucs while weakening the Falcons. With Atlanta rookie punter Matt Bosher ranked 31st in the league, it seems to have worked.
The teams are relatively even everywhere else, including the standings, where each is 1-1.
Koenen thinks the gap between the teams is closing.
"This is an up-and-coming team,'' Koenen said of the Bucs. "They have some amazing talent here. I noticed that even more after I got here, after I watched how hard these guys play and work.''
Falcons receiver Roddy White expects the Bucs to grow from last season's losses.
"They've done a great job of taking every game we've played with them down to the wire,'' receiver Roddy White said. "We've just found ways to mentally get over the hump.
"But it takes things like that to happen to you to get better, so we don't expect anything different from them this time around. We expect the game to be close. We expect to be in a battle.''
Penn has been itching for the fight since he boarded that charter flight bound for Tampa last Sunday. And for reasons that go far beyond his desire to end that five-game losing streak.
The Bucs' stated goal is to win the division. To do that, they'll almost certainly have to beat the Falcons. The way Penn sees it, there's no time like the present.
"I still have a bad taste in my mouth about the way we've lost to these guys the last two games, and I want to get rid of that and win because we have no bragging rights here, none,'' he said.
"It's all woulda, coulda, shoulda for us. We came close twice last year and that hurts. So we have to make sure we take every play seriously this time, because sooner or later we're going to have to beat these guys.''