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Minnesota Vikings v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

For Buccaneers, this year’s stretch run has to be different

Tampa Bay has been in this spot before. This time, it needs to finish the job and get into the playoffs.

At 8-5 through 13 games of the 2020 season, the Buccaneers find themselves with a great chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007, ending a 13-year drought. But despite the schedule seeming to set up favorably for them, they can’t take their foot off the gas pedal now. After all, they’ve been here before.

Since 2008, Tampa Bay has been in playoff contention heading into Week 15 six times. And all six times, things have gone terribly wrong over the final three games to keep the playoff drought going.

First, it was 2008. The Bucs were, at one time, 9-3. Even after a loss sent them to 9-4 heading into the final three games, they were in a solid spot. But three more losses in a row, including one against 6-8 San Diego and another against 4-11 Oakland, kept them out of the postseason and got Jon Gruden fired.

Two years later, Raheem Morris had the young Bucs at 8-5 through 13 games. They even went 2-1 the rest of the way to finish 10-6, but that home loss to the 3-10 Lions proved costly, leading to another missed postseason.

In 2012, Greg Schiano’s team was 6-7 through 13. Playoffs were still a possibility, but the slim hopes faded after a 41-0 loss to the 5-8 Saints. Another loss to the 6-7-1 Rams certainly didn’t help either, and the Bucs finished 7-9.

In Jameis Winston’s 2015 rookie season, Tampa Bay was again 6-7 heading into its final three games, but three straight defeats eventually led to a 6-10 finish.

The next year, which was the team’s most promising since 2010, saw another 8-5 mark through 13 games. A loss to Dallas dropped the Bucs to 8-6 before a Christmas Eve loss to the 6-8 Saints severely damaged their hopes. A season-closing win meant a 9-7 finish, but that wasn’t enough. Oddly, though, a 9-7 finish with a Week 16 win over the Saints and a Week 17 loss would’ve gotten them into the playoffs. Instead, it was another January at home.

Last year was an interesting case for the Bucs, as they found themselves at 6-7 heading into their final three games. They beat the Colts in Week 15 to get to 7-7, but they were eliminated from contention after failing to get help elsewhere. But even at 7-7, the team at least still had a shot to finish .500 or better. No dice. Losses to the Texans and Falcons sent them to 7-9.

So, the Bucs have definitely had their share of late-season mishaps in the past. And the run to 8-5 in 2020, while frustrating at times, has been a good one overall. But they have to finish the job this time. This year—this stretch run—has to be different. Tampa Bay went all in this offseason and has continued to add to its offense as the year has progressed. First, it was signing Tom Brady. Then, it was trading for Rob Gronkowski. Eventually, Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown entered the mix as well. And on the defensive side of things, the talent is there.

On paper, this is a playoff team. It might even be a Super Bowl team. But the games aren’t played on paper, and the Bucs absolutely have to take care of business in their final three games. Even if they don’t look like Super Bowl favorites on the field right now, they have to get to the dance and give themselves a chance.

Per FiveThirtyEight, Tampa Bay has a 97% chance to make the playoffs as of right now. It has two meetings with 4-9 Atlanta and a trip to face 5-8 Detroit in between them. All three of those matchups are extremely winnable, and 11-5 could possibly set the Bucs up with the NFC’s No. 5 seed (with the No. 6 seed being the floor, most likely).

The odds are in this team’s favor, but as we’ve seen, the odds have been good before only for the team to defy them and fall flat on its face. But this year—with this team—has to be different.

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