1) Well that was a little anticlimactic wasn't it.
1a) After the embarrassment of getting shut out at home vs. the Saints last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were able to recover against an underperforming and outclassed Carolina Panthers squad and won their 11th game of the season, clinching the NFC South division for the first time since 2007, securing at least one home game in the playoffs, and demonstrating skill on both sides of the ball with key starters out with backups stepping up to make big plays.
1b) This is pretty much evidence that as long as Sean Peyton is coaching the Saints, the Bucs are screwed playing New Orleans. But I digress.
1c) Bucs came in with half their starting receiver corps out with injuries, meaning our passing offense led by starting Pro Bowler Tom Brady had to rely on unheralded backup who for much of the season hadn't really proved themselves. On the plus side, the scandalous Antonio Brown returned from injury and suspension to at least give our offense a fighting chance. On the down side, Bucs were also down Leonard Fournette at RB, meaning our inconsistent running attack now relied on two backs in Ronald Jones and Ke'Shawn Vaughn to give the Panthers something to distract them.
1d) In reality, our rushing offense shined today - even without newly acquired FA Bell playing until the Fourth Quarter to fill the veteran gap - as both RoJo and Vaughn provided the Bucs with enough yards and TDs to where we didn't need Brady and Brown to be at their best.
1e) And in terms of our defense, the Bucs D played above and beyond even with team leader Lavonte David out on IR, shutting down a Panthers offense that barely moved the ball all day and were shut out of the end zone (settling for early FGs that did little to keep them in the game). Granted, Carolina's offense this season has been weak and unreliable without their key RB McCaffrey and relying on QBs like Sam Darnold (too shaken) and Cam Newton (too dinged up), but for this defense to keep two teams - Saints and Panthers - out of the end zone for two straight games is a hell of an accomplishment.
2) On that note, the Player of the Game is without a doubt DE William Gholston. Just by stats alone, you can tell he had a great day with 2.5 sacks, 2 TFLs, and 3 QB hits (meaning lots of pressure). This is a defense that thrives or dies by the blitz, and it looks like today the Bucs thrived...
2a) Because Pro Bowler LB Shaquil Barrett also garnered a sack today, which put him at 10 sacks this season and putting him in rare company - Lee Roy Selmon, Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp - of Bucs players with multiple double-digit sack years.
2b) DE Anthony Nelson came in strong with a sack as well, one of those backup guys stepping up at a moment we need them most.
2c) DT Vita Vea also snagged a sack, proving his value as the middle anchor of a defensive front that should scare the hell out of every other team.
2d) LB Kevin Minter is still on the team? I guess so, because filling in for an injured David he snagged a sack as well.
2e) We done counting the sacks yet? Because veteran FA pickup Steve McClendon got the other half of a sack he shared with Gholston.
2f) And if Gholston doesn't get NFC Defensive Player of the Week consideration, it could go to Safety Jordan Whitehead, who balled out all game leading the team in total tackles, solo tackles, 3 passes defended, and a key interception that helped stop the Panthers from scoring early.
2g) Now that we got the defensive honors out of the way, RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn finally had that breakout game the Bucs were looking for since drafting him 2020. Cutting loose in the First Quarter for a 55-yard TD scamper and pretty much setting the tone for the Bucs' offense all day. He ended the day with 70 yards on 7 carries, and could have had more if he wasn't time sharing with...
2h) Ronald Jones II, who didn't have the breakout run like he had last season (98 yards into the record books, baby!), but he served competently with 65 yards on 20 carries and a late TD to make the game a blowout. Granted, he ran into the pile far too often, but on the run plays to the outside he did rather well (HINT TO THE COACHES, STOP RUNNING IT UP THE MIDDLE).
2i) WR Brown's return to the game netted him 101 yards receiving on ten catches, a solid performance even with the other team knowing he was the primary target for much of the day.
2j) Of the backup WRs, Cyril Grayson showed up with a major deep catch and run for 62 yards that put the Bucs in position to score.
2k) When your team's QBs do not get sacked all game long, serious props to the Buccaneers Offensive Line, led by Pro Bowler Ali Marpet, Pro Bowler Ryan Jensen, and anchored by starting Pro Bowler Tristan Wirfs. This is the first time the Bucs are sending multiple O-linemen to the Pro Bowl in one year, highlighting just how incredible the talent we have in the trenches can be. Guard Alex Cappa was named an alternate. The biggest disappointment here is that Tackle Donovan Smith wasn't named at all, not even for alternate when this has been one of his best seasons ever. Some days it sucks to be a pretty good Left Tackle...
2l) K Ryan Succop had a great afternoon, scoring 4 FGs on four tries including a 48-yarder. Any points will help after a week where we had no points at all...
3) As pointed out earlier, the Bucs did well this year for Pro Bowl consideration, with five players named to the NFC squad - Brady, Marpet, Jensen, Wirfs, Barrett - and with a handful of others named to First/Second Alternate - WR Mike Evans, LB Devin White, S Antonie Winfield Jr, Cappa, Fournette, Godwin (should have been voted starter, dammit), GRONK, and Vea. This might be the most players the Buccaneers have ever gotten invited to the Pro Bowl in team history.
3a) And it is still a damn shame that the great Lavonte David didn't get any Pro Bowl consideration at all.
4) Statistics of the game: Red Zone scoring. The Panthers made three trips into the Red Zone and failed to score any TDs. Granted, their last visit was in the last 20 seconds of the game during trash time, but it speaks well to the Bucs defense that rather than give up a TD in trash time they kept knocking the scoring attempts down to earn the kudos.
On the Bucs side, they made four visits and got two TDs out of it, which is nice but below expectations. You want to get 4-for-4 or 3-for-4, or 4-for-5, something like that. Again, it looked today like the Bucs were leaving points off the table.
4a) PENALTIES WILL BE THE DEATH OF US. Bucs racked up 6 penalties for 50 yards, with Panthers garnering two first downs to keep drives alive. In the end, the Bucs prevailed with a big win, but still penalties and sloppy play going into the postseason is not good.
4b) Rushing yards: Bucs totaled up 159 yards, more than doubling the Panthers' meager 67. That Carolina O-line has some issues...
4c) Because the Bucs also totaled up 7 sacks on the day, the most since 2013, and it begs the history trivia question of "What is the Bucs team record for sacks in a game?"
5) With this win, the Bucs clinched both the division and a playoff spot. Seeding is now a priority because home field is a big thing (yes, I know the Bucs won every playoff game on the road except of course for that EPIC SUPER BOWL WIN AT HOME BABY!) so being a top seed matters. Thing is, I don't think the Bucs were EVER the top seed of the NFC in any (1979, 1981, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2007) division winning year (only home NFC Championship game was in 1979 and that was due to the top seeded Cowboys losing to the Rams, who beat us). So that might be something to shoot for.
Unfortunately, that means the Green Bay Packers have to oblige us by losing their last two games, which is unlikely, so aiming for second seed is the next best thing to do.
5a) SHOULD the Bucs rest starters now that the NFC South is won? There are players injured we need back, and there is a risk key starters like Brady could get dinged up at the worst possible time. The Bucs are facing two weak teams for the last two games, the lowly Jets and the just-beaten Panthers. Thing is, there is pride on the line in beating a division rival like Carolina - hence why the NFL now closes every season with division matchups - and also pride in avoiding a shameful loss to the JETS.
If the Bucs have decent leads by halftime in either game, I would argue the Bucs start rotating in more of the backups and give the starters more rest, but with enough snaps to keep everybody fired up to play without rust.
6) In other NFL News, a lot of other divisions were clinched today, especially the Kansas City Chiefs clinching the AFC West with a BEATDOWN of the Steelers. Chiefs were up 30-0 by the Third Quarter (!), and they're scoring roughly 32 points a game right now. The early season woes they had are long gone and they can rightly challenge for the AFC title again.
6a) Dallas clinched the NFC East without even playing yet (they're a Sunday nighter) due to the arcane math of playoff tiebreakers giving them the edge over a not-too-shabby Eagles team that's been playing well late into the season.
6b) The Rams clinched a playoff spot and The Cardinals clinched a playoff spot, but neither clinched the NFC West yet. The Rams are a game ahead but Arizona owns the tiebreaker for the moment. Cards are stumbling now, having lost three straight games, and they need to figure out how to make that offense work again before it's too late.
6c) DAMMIT DETROIT YOU COULD HAVE BEAT THE FALCONS TODAY!
6d) Look out, Bucs: your next opponent the J-E-T-S just won a game...
7) It's a little too early to start thinking about the NFL Draft, but what the hell I obsess over it anyway! It's looking like Jacksonville will have the top draft pick again but without a need for QB it could go to the next top needs that teams draft early for (Defensive End/Pass Rush or Offensive Tackle).
7a) Detroit is next in line and I would argue they need either Linebacker or Cornerback, but usually not drafted so highly. Smart move is to trade down to garner more picks and fill more gaps...
7z) The Bucs are currently set to draft 28th through 30th in the draft, and by that point you just need a key playmaker in any spot left open by Free Agency losses. If we had a need, I would argue for either Cornerback (hurm), Running Back (still no legitimate primary starter even with talented guys on the roster), or Tight End (OJ Howard needed to step up this season and he really hasn't).
8) In professional college football news, the U of Central Florida team demolished the U of Florida Gators in the almighty Gasparilla Bowl last week, meaning the Knights have state bragging rights until (checks calendar) 2024. DAMMIT.
8a) There's word that USF is close to announcing an on-campus stadium to begin construction in time for the 2025 season, but I haven't seen anything concrete yet. Would be great to have a team good enough to actually play there.
9) In professional hockey news, the entire NHL suspended games in response to the severe uptick in COVID cases among teams, to where we won't see any more played until New Year's (maybe).
This is something the other leagues - NFL, NBA, college basketball, others - need to pay attention to. This latest Omicron variant is the most virulent yet, spreading four times faster than Delta variant, and we're seeing it happen in pro football whenever our fantasy team rosters list IR-Due-To-COVID reports.
Every league needs to lockdown/quarantine their teams to reduce the risks of contact, especially now that Christmas is over and the need to be with family/friends reduced (yes, I know New Year's Eve is coming up). We're still in scary times, everybody.
I want to watch games, but I want our players to stay healthy.
10) Next up: Bucs travel to a cold-weather stadium in January to play the dreaded New Jersey Jets. Dreaded in that nobody wants the embarrassment of losing to them.
LETS GO BUCS, CLINCH NFC HOME FIELD!!!