Coming into this one, we talked about logical losses. Even the most ardent Bucs fan had to admit that the odds were long that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would go into Denver and beat one of the league's hottest teams and perhaps the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.
Yet, there they were at half time with a 10-7 lead and the game unfolding perfectly. Unfortunately, the Bucs couldn't sustain it and it ended up a 31-23 defeat.
So what did we learn from this one?
1. For the second consecutive week, the Bucs are reminded just where they are a tinge behind the top contenders in the league. To win close games against the league's best on the road - you can't make stupid mistakes. It also wouldn't hurt to have a pass rush and a secondary. The Bucs are well coached and maybe playing a little bit beyond their means at this point but they're not an a elite team. Yet the past two weeks have shown that the margin between Tampa Bay and the teams the pundits deem to be Super Bowl contenders isn't that wide.
Get back some of the walking wounded, re-work the secondary and get another year in Sullivan's offense (assuming he's not stupid enough to take the Boston College job if its offered) and the Bucs could really be a threat to the powers in the NFC.
2. So while the Bucs offense went into a coma in the third quarter, Peyton Manning and the Broncos suddenly exploded for 14 points. Add Von Miller's pick six and you basically had the difference in the ballgame. As Sander said earlier in the week, you have to maximize every opportunity you have against an offense like Denver's. Starting the second half with consecutive three and outs and then a pick six is not a winning formula to say the least.
3. At 31-13, you had to think that this was the first time the Bucs would taste the sting of getting blown out by a better opponent. I'll admit, when Greg Schiano chose to kick a field goal at 3:23 I was screaming a few expletives at the screen. Yet that's why Schiano is a head coach in the National Football League and I'm some jackwagon writing on a blog.
Schiano had it completely figured out. Get the three, stop the run and use your timeouts, get the ball back, score a touchdown quickly and hope you can get the onsides, score again and cash in on the 2-pt conversion. Head to overtime.
It nearly worked. Unfortunately the Bucs failed to recover the onside kick but even with that, thanks to Tampa Bay getting into the endzone before the 2 minute warning expired the Bucs had a chance to get the ball back if they could keep the Broncos from getting a first down.
Unfortunately, Gary Gibson's jump offsides killed that opportunity.
4. The Kneel Down attack reared its head again with yet another ugly finish to a competitive game. I said it then and I say it now - I still have no issues with the play. If you're within a score - you still have a chance to win and anything can happen. A bobbled snap and recovery regenerates the Bucs' chances. I would never want to see it done during a game out of reach and Schiano never would do that, but if the game was still in the balance I like my team playing to triple zeros.
Also, it's on tape. Every opponent on the schedule knows that if the Bucs are within one score and you have an opportunity at a victory formation - Tampa Bay is not going to quit. It's not about trying to hurt anybody - it's about winning the game.
Folks say that it exposes players needlessly to injury on a play that has low percentages for success - but you can get injured on any play in the game. You're more likely to get injured on an onside kick than you are on that play (and that has about the same odds of success), yet teams still do it. Should they just concede the loss there as well?
You need to be prepared every single play. As I said, it's clearly on tape. Protect yourself.
Peyton I thought handled it well. After securing the snap, he moved back three or four yards to avoid contact. That's how you beat it safely.
5. Poor Leonard Johnson. He's a good kid with some ball skills but he's not ready to be a starting NFL corner. Peyton Manning singled out Johnson as the weakest link and terrorized the young Buccaneer, who was covering Broncos wide out Demaryius Thomas. Thomas finished the game with 8 receptions for 99 yds and 2 touchdowns.
The second one was a thing of beauty - as Manning lasered the ball right into Thomas' bread basket. I'll be honest, I don't think there's a corner in the league who would've stopped that pass.
Johnson typically has had good coverage but his problem is he stares down the receiver and rarely looks back for the ball. If he ever learns that skill, he'll have opportunities to make interceptions and swat balls away.
Until he does, he's going to continue to get interference penalties and see balls whiz by his ear hole.
6. Ironically, the Bucs secondary did a decent job against Peyton. Manning finished the day with just 242 yds and an interception. Tampa Bay limited the Broncos to 6.4 yds a pass play. The longest completion was 28 yards. The Bucs even got off the field on third down, holding the Broncos to just 4-of-11.
While the beleaguered Bucs secondary managed to hold down the numbers, Manning threw 3 touchdown passes in the red zone - one to a defensive lineman in as a tackle eligible. The Bucs defense has to figure out a way to turn those touchdowns into field goals. It would have been a rare good day for the defensive backfield. Unfortunately, they failed when they needed it the most.
7. Speaking of that, the Bucs' red zone efficiency on offense and defense - once a strength, has struggled the past couple games. You can't settle for field goals against Peyton Manning and expect to win. He is going to get his on good defenses, none-the-less your swiss cheese secondary and a pass rush that is on a milk carton somewhere.
I don't think the Bucs offense played poorly - in fact they were pretty darn good in the first half against a stout Denver defense - but their malaise in the third quarter put them behind the eight ball.
Tampa Bay was 2 for 3 on touchdowns in the red zone - which is pretty good on paper. However, when you get into scoring range you can't have your drive stall and settle for threes. Six times Tampa Bay pushed inside the Broncos 35 yd line. Only twice did they come away with touchdowns. That's not going to cut it against the league's best.
8. As we expected, the Bucs' patchwork offensive line was under siege from the Broncos' top notch front seven. To their credit they only surrendered one sack but Freeman was under duress the entire ball game. Speaking of Freeman, he looked rattled out there a lot of the second half, rushing some throws and being inaccurate.
On the pick six, Freeman got drilled by Mitch Unrein - the defensive lineman who also caught the touchdown pass earlier in the game - as he was throwing the football. You can say Unrein accounted for 12 Bronco points.
9. Two weeks in a row, the Dougernaut has been shut down. After averaging 5.2 yards a carry for the first ten games of the season, Martin has managed 106 yds on 39 carries (a 2.7 average). It's not all on Martin, though. Once again, there were few holes to run through and he was getting hit a lot in the backfield by Denver's speedy defense.
We knew that losing two Pro Bowl guards would eventually have some effect. The Bucs are feeling those right now. For Tampa Bay to be successful down the stretch, the patchwork offensive line and Martin are going to need to get their second wind.
10. Seattle's stunning victory in Chicago combined with the Bucs loss in Denver certainly put a damper on the playoff hopes for the Pewter and Red. However, things aren't as dire as they might seem.
The Bucs have chances at 10-6, 9-7 and even 8-8 but they'll obviously need some help. I'll break it all down in Tuesday's DLT's NFC Playoff Scenario Madness but a quick preview - the Rams will become very important to the Buccaneers in the final weeks.
Tampa Bay must beat St. Louis and then hope the Rams can upset the Seahawks in the season finale. If they can pull that trick, the Bucs flip the tie-breaker to Tampa Bay based on the third tie-breaker, record among common opponents. Considering the Rams went toe-to-toe with the cream of the crop in the NFC West, it's not far fetched that the Rams can pull it off. Lose to the Rams though and the Bucs lose out on any tie-breaker opportunities against the Seahawks. The Rams game is your must win.
There's a number of other scenarios involving Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota that we'll get into but the Bucs aren't out of it by any stretch of the imagination.
Bottom line, Tampa Bay has got to start winning again. The next three games are against teams with losing records. If the Bucs hope to be a playoff team, those need to be wins - yes - even in New Orleans. The Saints are a tough out on the road but they're still a team that has been beaten 7 times (possibly 8 by the time the Bucs get to them). They've had success in New Orleans in the past and they need that to continue.
If Tampa Bay can keep the pressure on Seattle going into that final weekend and facing an Atlanta team that should have everything wrapped up - they still have a good shot at playing January football. After last season's debacle - that's a good thing.