1) Last season, it was mostly a relief that the Bucs had reached a postseason after 13 years of failing at it. A decent run, maybe a shot at the NFC championship game, nothing as stunning as actually making a Super Bowl again. After all, we were a wild card slot, forced to play all road games if we had to, and some of the likely opponents were teams that could flatten us.
Sure, the first round was against a bad Washington team that only made it because the rest of the NFC East sucked rhino, and the 11-5 Bucs were expected to make short work of the 7-9 hapless No-Names. It was the next expected game against New Orleans - a Drew Brees led nightmare that had made the last 10 years a living hell for Bucs teams - where the fun run was supposed to stop. And it almost did, except Brees aged out at the worst possible time, throwing bad INTs late in the game the Bucs converted into points and into a win.
At that point, all of a sudden a Super Bowl made sense. Tom Freaking Brady was hot, leading an offense that could score 30-31 points at will (a statement I made back then that may have jinxed them to scoring ONLY up to 31 points, oy vey). The defense was showing signs of playing above their weight class, making turnovers at key moments that won us those games. And we were then going into a Green Bay matchup where we HAD beaten them soundly in the regular season, giving us hope that the Bucs could... go... all... the... way.
And by racing out to a 28-3 lead on a shocked Packers squad, the Bucs overcame some bad Brady turnovers and eked out a 31-26 win and made history as the first team to play a Super Bowl as the home team in their own stadium.
Capped by a near flawless 31-9 curb-stomp of a high-flying Chiefs offense that led to one of the most stunning Super Bowl wins of all time. It was an incredible, dream-like winning streak for the ages.
2) And now here we are in 2022, doing something no other Bucs team had done before, well something the 2003 Bucs team failed to do: Defend the title in the following postseason.
Where last year was a lark, this year it's pure business and high-octane drama. The expectations are harsh. Tampa Bay is looking to do something that rarely happens in pro sports: Back-to-Back titles. Something that hasn't happened since 2003-2004 with the Patriots.
The good news is that the guy who knows how to handle that pressure is the guy leading the Bucs offense: Tom Freaking Brady. Leading yet another offense that even with the injury loss to Chris Godwin and the WTF loss of Antonio "Hopping Mad" Brown can still put up
31 no wait 33 hold on let's make sure I jinx them better 35 points on other teams.
The bad news is that the postseason path is tougher this year, we're coping with a few too many injuries at key positions (especially that banged up secondary), and the odds are stacked a little harder against us.
3) The first round matchup on paper looks like an easy Bucs win over an Eagles team that scraped its way to a wild card spot. And the Bucs did beat them in Philadelphia during the regular season. Thing is, that game ended up being too close a score, and this time around the Eagles have figured out they are better at running the ball than throwing it. While the Bucs had a decent run defense - it was at the top of the league before heading into December - the past month of injuries to linebackers revealed a porous unit that failed against the run.
If there's good news after all that, it's that half our injured LBs are back - especially Shaq Barrett and JPP, and maybe Lavonte David - and we could see a return of that stout run D.
Wild Card weekend guarantees at least one upset special, and there is a risk the Bucs could succumb to that. But other teams - especially the Four Seed LA Rams facing a Fifth Seed Arizona team that knows how to beat them - are at higher risk of appeasing the Football Gods as upset sacrificial lambs.
The Bucs ought to win over the Eagles, if I had to predict it would be Bucs 33 - Eagles 23.
4) If the Bucs survive to Round Two, the situation gets more dangerous.
Either the seeds win out, no upsets happen, and the Bucs face the Three Seed Dallas Cowboys, a team that came close to beating us on Opening Night Thursday; or there's an upset or two that has the Bucs facing either the LA Rams or Arizona Cardinals (if Dallas loses, it's to the second-lowest seed 49ers who will then play top seed Packers).
All three scenarios are scary:
4a) On paper, the Cowboys are one of the more balanced teams this year, with a scary good young defense that can force turnovers.
4b) If the Bucs face the Rams, it will be against a team that much like the Saints knows how to beat the Bucs and beat us soundly with that defense, and attacking our dinged-up secondary with a receiver threat in Cooper Kupp having a goddamn MVP year.
4c) If it ends up being the Cards, it will be a team that mirrors us in a lot of ways, especially a defense that likes to blitz and with an offense eager to go deep and reckless.
5) Winning any of THOSE matchups, and the Bucs are likely facing a return to THE FROZEN TUNDRA for yet another NFC championship matchup against the Green Bay Packers... only this time Lambeau will be packed and deafening, and Aaron Rodgers more pissed off than before.
Surviving Lambeau to reach the Super Bowl is doable, but not a guarantee. NONE of these games are.
6) Still, reaching the Super Bowl to make serious claim for back-to-back titles would be a heady moment. It begs the question who the Bucs would face. The AFC was more of a mess - few teams dominated the whole year through the way Green Bay and Tampa Bay did in the NFC - and thus is less predictable. A solid argument could be made that ANY of the top seeds - Tennessee Titans, Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills - will win the right to represent in the big game, but there's also a chance those teams can suffer a brain fart at the worst possible moment and let the likes of a dinged-up Pittsburgh Steelers (they TIED with Detroit, for God's sake) surprise them.
6a) If the NFL had any say in terms of which matchups pair best with Tampa Bay - in terms of drama, of ratings - they would drool over a wild card team New England Patriots beating the odds with their rookie QB Mac Jones facing Brady's Bucs in a grudge rematch. The team everyone hates the last 20 years (Pats) vs. the team everyone hates now (Bucs). Everyone would watch to see if Brady or the Hooded One defeats the other in the game that matters most.
6b) The next-best Bucs opponent would be the Chiefs: A rematch of last year's SB, a chance for Mahomes to finally throw some touchdowns, a rarity in Super Bowl matchups (the last back-to-back title matchups, maybe the only other one when I think aboot it, were the 1993-1994 Cowboys and Bills).
6c) If Buffalo represents, it would provide an intriguing matchup with an up-and-coming Bills team lead by a guy in Josh Allen hoping to be the next Tom Brady, with the Bucs facing a team they actually have a winning history against, and Buffalo looking to overcome the horror of being one of the most losing SB teams in NFL history.
6d) The Raiders are in the playoffs and could surprise. A rematch of Super Bowl XXXVII would provide some drama and some West Coast vs East Coast viewership.
6e) If Cincinnati makes it to face Tampa Bay, it wouldn't be a big dramatic showdown but it would be flashy, Joe Burrow and Lamarr Chase as a QB-WR combo igniting one of the hottest offenses in the whole league. Like Josh Allen, a Burrow-Brady matchup would be a young-vs-veteran QB storyline for the ages.
6f) Tampa Bay vs. Tennessee would be... well... meh. There's little history and almost no drama, other than the possibility of Derrick Henry at full strength as a running back playing for his first Super Bowl title (and maybe even MVP honors).
6g) Tampa Bay vs. Pittsburgh would have some drama, mostly on the Steelers side as two aging QBs Brady vs. Big Ben face off, the Steelers one of the most decorated Super Bowl winners of all time vs. an upstart like the Buccaneers. But this is absolutely unlikely: The Steelers just aren't gonna to teh supa bawl. Sorry, Urinating Tree.
7) The Bucs' best chances to win their way back to the Super Bowl relies entirely on the starting players staying healthy the whole way through. We can't afford any more losses of talent at this point. The offensive line has been great this year at protecting Brady, which bodes well. But we need a balanced attack, and a healthy return of Leonard Fournette in the running game to be our good-luck Playoff charm.
7a) The Bucs haven't been as successful blitzing this season, although they've been good enough to rattle opposing QBs, so the best thing to hope for this postseason is that the Bucs regain some skill at forcing turnovers. That WAS a key element of last season's performance, especially forcing INTs at big moments. Bucs were 6th in the league in TO differential (+10) and it's something we should build on to win this postseason.
8) How should we feel if the Bucs don't make it to the Super Bowl?
Well, the expectations ARE that high. We are the defending champs and our players are some of the best of the best. But this IS a crazier year than last, and the opponents we're facing are in slightly better physical and mental shape than before.
We ought to at least feel good the Bucs won the NFC South after a long drought, and that we're still a talented squad that should see most of our best players return next season. But it's going to feel pretty bad. Losing to the Eagles in the first round would be the worst, facing a team that by all rights we ought to beat. If the Bucs can at least reach another NFC title match, that ought to be somewhat satisfying...
9) Nah, screw it. VICTORY OR DEATH! VICTORY OR DEATH! VICTORY OR DEATH! GO BUCS!
10) In other news, THERE BETTER BE A RAYS BALLPARK IN YBOR BY 2025!!!
Ahem. It's playoff time. LET'S GOOOOOOOOOOOO, BUCS!