The “what if” game is always a painful one, especially when it comes to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the last decade-plus. It seems like they’re in almost every game they play, yet they all tend to go the wrong way. That was certainly the case throughout most of 2019.
The Bucs finished 7-9, well outside of the NFC playoffs. But there were plenty of games that had a few “what ifs” that, had they gone in Tampa Bay’s favor, would’ve changed a lot. That includes games against four of the remaining eight teams in this year’s NFL Playoffs.
The 49ers, Titans, Seahawks and Texans are all playing in this weekend’s divisional round. They were all on the Bucs’ schedule, and the Bucs went 0-4 against them. Could they have realistically gone 4-0 in those games and finished 11-5 instead of 7-9? Looking at each game in a vacuum, sure. Let’s take a painful trip down memory lane and look at the big “what ifs” from each game.
Week 1: 49ers 31, Bucs 17
The Bucs opened up the 2019 season with a frustrating loss to the 49ers at Raymond James Stadium. At the time, it felt even more frustrating considering San Francisco was 4-12 a year ago. Little did we know, Jimmy Garoppolo and the ‘9ers were going to start 8-0 and finish as the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a 13-3 record. But Tampa Bay, which lost the game 31-17, could’ve just as easily won to start the year 1-0.
What Went Right: The Buccaneer defense held the 49ers to 17 points and scored a touchdown of its own. San Francisco only totaled 256 yards and turned the ball over twice. It was a far cry from the Tampa Bay defense we saw in 2017 and 2018, and the effort should’ve been good enough for a win. And had just a few moments gone differently, it would’ve been.
The What Ifs: Jameis Winston threw two pick sixes in the game, but let’s focus on the first one. The second one put the game away late, but wasn’t as impactful as the first. The first pick six came in the third quarter just after the 49ers took a 13-7 lead. Winston threw the ball where he was supposed to, but Peyton Barber ran his route too deep. All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman was there to pick it off and run it back for a touchdown. What if Barber runs the right route? Even if he doesn’t catch it and it falls incomplete, it’s not a disastrous play that leads to a 20-7 San Francisco lead. Maybe the Bucs drive down the field and score to get the lead back. Or maybe they simply punt the ball away and flip the field. The game could’ve unfolded in an entirely different way.
Even with that pick six, the Bucs had a chance to take a fourth-quarter lead. Trailing 20-14 with under 14 minutes to go, they lined up for a field goal from the 4-yard line. However, a penalty gave them two yards, so they went for it on 4th & Goal. Winston’s pass to Godwin fell incomplete, and the Bucs were kept off the board. What if they punch it in there and take a 21-20 lead? With the way the defense was playing, a touchdown there could’ve been the spark the team needed to escape with a win.
Add the fact that two Bucs touchdowns were called back due to holding penalties on Demar Dotson (with at least one of those calls being extremely questionable) to those “what ifs” and you have the first 2019 case of “Bucs beating Bucs.”
Week 8: Titans 27, Bucs 23
Coming off their bye week with a 2-4 record, the Bucs needed a win in Tennessee to start some sort of turnaround. Heading in, this one seemed very winnable. Of course, it was before Ryan Tannehill turned everything around and the Titans became the playoff-bound Titans. Marcus Mariota had just been benched and the whole team appeared to be in disarray. And sure enough, the Bucs overcame their turnover demons to have a chance to win the game late.
What Went Right: Tampa Bay overcame an early deficit, Mike Evans went for 198 yards and two touchdowns on 11 catches and the defense held Derrick Henry under 100 yards. The Bucs led 23-20 heading into the fourth quarter and came up with a huge play late that should’ve led to a win. They should’ve walked away with a big road win to get to 3-4.
The What Ifs: Even with the four Winston turnovers aside (all four of which were hardly even his fault), Tampa Bay should’ve had this one. Up 27-23 with under four minutes to play, the Titans lined up for a field goal at the Bucs’ 28-yard line. They faked it, with punter Brett Kern taking the snap and running to the outside only to get planted by Devin White and fumble the ball. Andrew Adams picked it up and had a clear path to the end zone, only the officials blew the play dead. No fumble, no recovery for a touchdown. The early whistle also meant no review, so instead of having a late 30-27 lead, Tampa Bay still trailed, had to try to put together a game-winning drive and failed to do so. Sure, the offense could’ve come through, but what if the NFL officials followed the directions they’ve been given and weren’t incompetent? The Bucs would’ve had a pretty dang good chance to win the game. This was, in some ways, more Bucs beating Bucs. But to a pretty sizable extent, it was a case of Refs beating Bucs.
Week 9: Seahawks 40, Bucs 34 (Overtime)
Just one week after the Bucs were robbed in Tennessee, their offense was robbed of a chance to see the field in overtime. Sure, the NFL overtime rules are the NFL overtime rules and the defense should’ve just stepped up, but what was perhaps the team’s best game of the season came down to a coin toss. The Bucs led the Seahawks early, tied the game late to force overtime, then lost the coin toss and ultimately the game.
What Went Right: Jameis Winston had one of his best games of the season, throwing for 335 yards and two touchdowns on 29-of-44 passing while turning the ball over just once (losing a fumble). The Bucs led 21-13 at halftime, but they eventually had to come back and tie the game twice within the final five and a half minutes. They were brilliant in doing so, then they got to see overtime thanks to a missed field goal as time expired.
The What Ifs: Had the offense gotten the ball in overtime, Tampa Bay might’ve walked away with its biggest win of the season. Truly, what if the Bucs would’ve won the toss in overtime? Winston had just led a 75-yard drive to tie the game with under a minute to go and the offense was rolling. If they get the ball, drive down the field and score, they keep Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense off the field and head back to Tampa with a victory.
But what if the game never even got to overtime? Matt Gay missed a 50-yard field goal at the end of the first half that would’ve given the Bucs a 24-13 lead heading into the locker room. Of course, 50-yarders aren’t automatic. But those are the kinds of kicks that need to go through to win games in tough road environments. It was a frustrating miss for the rookie. Bucs beating Bucs. Coin toss also beating Bucs?
Week 16: Texans 23, Bucs 20
By Week 16, Tampa Bay had already been eliminated from playoff contention. But that didn’t stop the Bucs from nearly upsetting the Texans at home to prevent them from clinching the AFC South. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin were both missing from this game, yet the Bucs still hung around and probably should’ve won the game.
What Went Right: The Bucs overcame a disastrous start to hit the locker room at halftime in a 17-17 tie. The defense was the biggest reason for that, as it held Deshaun Watson and the Houston offense in check all afternoon. By the end of the day, the Texans had been outgained 435-229 and had scored just 16 offensive points — with the majority coming as a result of great field position. Breshad Perriman carried the receiving corps, Ronald Jones II had a good game and Justin Watson caught a touchdown. But it wasn’t enough to overcome the same ol’ Bucs beating Bucs narrative.
The What Ifs: We could talk about the Bucs’ disastrous start or their whimper of a finish. But let’s focus in on some key plays in this one. The first couple are centered on more incompetent officiating. Breshad Perriman, as pictured above, was interfered with blatantly on Tampa Bay’s second drive of the game. There was no call, so Bruce Arians challenged it. And after the review, they STILL missed the call. One play later, Houston came up with an interception that set up a field goal for a 10-0 lead.
Later in the first half, the early whistle cost the Bucs again. Lavonte David forced a fumble and recovered it, but an early whistle prevented the turnover and any chance to review the play. So, with those two plays, we can ask: what if the NFL had competent officials that were good at their jobs?
Of course, this game had plenty of Bucs beating Bucs as well. Winston threw four interceptions and Barber fumbled, equaling FIVE turnovers. Even still, the Bucs had a chance in this one. What if Gay makes his 54-yard field goal attempt instead of having it blocked? That could’ve certainly made a difference. But EVEN WITH THAT MISS, the Bucs had a chance in this one. Trailing 23-20 with under four minutes to go, Tampa Bay had the ball at Houston’s 40. Facing a 4th & 3, Winston looked for Cameron Brate, one of the most sure-handed guys on the field. He was open for a first down, but he just dropped the pass. What if he catches that for a first down? Tampa Bay very likely ties the game late and forces overtime or potentially takes a late lead.
This really was a painful trip down memory lane, wasn’t it? I’m sorry for ruining your day, truly. But I say alllllllllll of that to say this: the Bucs hung right in there with four of the final eight teams standing in the NFL playoffs. How frustrating is that? So often, this team just can’t get out of its own way. That’s been the story for years. “What if this happened? What if that happened?”
Tampa Bay absolutely has to turn these “Bucs beating Bucs” games into wins next year. Bruce Arians seems like the right guy to make that happen. But this fan base is rightfully tired of the same ol’ same ol’. Can these “what ifs” become victories in 2020? I think I speak for everyone when I say we’ll believe it when we see it.