1) I will be honest. I have been quiet the past few weeks because I just couldn't follow this Tampa Bay Buccaneers team as they struggled to win the games they needed to win for the NFC South division title.
This should have been easy. This should have been settled by Week Ten with a dominant Bucs team led by Tom Brady on offense and a stifling defense. Bucs should have been racking up 3-4 touchdowns a game, with Brady-to-Evans or Brady-to-Julio or Brady-to-Godwin when Godwin returned from IR, with Fournette getting an occasional rushing TD to keep things honest.
Bucs should have cruised through a weak division where all three teams - Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans - were in serious rebuild mode, whereas we were getting established coaches in Bowles and Leftwich to take over where Arians left in retirement. Sure, we were losing Gronk unexpectedly to retirement, and losing Ali Marpet unexpectedly to retirement, and let veterans like Suh leave in FA, but the team made smart free agency and draft moves to fill the gaps.
Instead, things fell apart. The coaching went from aggressive to conservative. Leftwich in particular seemed to abandon play-action - something Brady excels at - and obsessed over a rushing attack that never gelled. We lost Jensen to injury, we lost Shaq Barrett to injury, we had player regression in the Offensive and Defensive lines.
1a) Bucs were losing close games they should have won. We had the Packers at a low point, we had the Steelers at their low point, we should have outplayed the Browns or the Panthers midway through this season. And yet, we couldn't. This should have been a 12-5 team, instead we're going to be lucky going into the postseason 9-8 if we beat the Falcons in a relatively meaningless season finale next Sunday.
1b) I had just quit watching the team. I felt like I had become a jinx again. I didn't even want to comment on last week's win over the Cardinals because it was still so sloppy a performance we needed OT to finish that broken team anyway. I think my chronic depression was flaring up bad due to the holidays (yes, it's a thing).
I'm commenting now because Tampa Bay did achieve a win that clinched the NFC South, it did so in a sloppy performance that still deserves note, and I need to comment on how things should proceed going into the 2022-23 postseason.
2) Player of the Game: WR Mike Evans has been having one of his weaker seasons in terms of touchdown production. Up until today, he had three total in 15 games, not something you want out of your Number One Receiver. There'd been several times in the year he had dropped big passes, almost certain game-breaking touchdowns, but it seemed as though he and QB Tom FREAKING Brady were out-of-sync.
Until today. With the team down 14-0 in the Second Quarter, Brady finally found Evans deep for a flawless 63-yard touchdown reception. They then teamed up for a 57-yard TD to make it 21-16. Then they pulled the hat trick with Evans getting a 30-yard TD to make it 24-21 and the lead.
Evans was coming into this game needing 87 yards to make his ninth straight 1000 yard season from his rookie season onward, which would tie him with HoF Tim Brown and put him second all-time behind Jerry FREAKING Rice (who has 11 straight). Evans came out with 207 yards and doubling his TD season. And he has one more game to play (unless the coaches rest him).
2a) Brady himself was having a career day. His season had been uneven all year long, with a few bright spots here and there to prove he was still an elite QB. He still had to throw it often, and lead the offense down by 11 going into the Fourth Quarter, but he ended the day with 432 yards with 34/45 completion rate, three TDs zero INTs, and a QB sneak for the clinching touchdown late in the game. He showed better accuracy, and clearly threw it deep with enough zip to prove he wasn't stuck throwing short screens all the time.
2b) Chris Godwin had himself a good day with 120 yards receiving. No TDs as Evans was soaking that all in, but Godwin snagged a much-needed 2-point conversion to help seal the deal. He still coughed up a fumble, alas, but thankfully the Panthers couldn't do anything with it, so we solid.
2c) While our defense struggled to contain the Panthers passing attack, at least the suspect rushing defense stepped up today and kept the Panthers from abusing us on the ground. Lavonte David led the team (again) in tackles and assists, and with the other linebackers kept Carolina at 77 yards after they had run crazy over Detroit the week before.
2d) Anthony Nelson has been a reasonably steady backup OLB his short career with the Bucs, but he's shown up time to time with much-needed sacks and QB pressures. Today he recorded a late sack on the Panthers QB Darnold and forced the fumble that Vita Vea recovered, deep in the Red Zone and leading to Brady's TD run to put the score at 30-21.
2e) Sean Murphy-Bunting has had an uneven season, oft-injured and not making many of the turnovers we've had from him in previous seasons, but he showed up today with a key INT... that ended up being a blocked kick. /headdesk
2f) Antoine Winfield Jr missed on some coverages that unfortunately allowed the Panthers to score - at least two TDs because he wasn't covering well - but he compensated by getting a key sack and helping out stop the run game at the scrimmage line.
2g) You normally don't want to praise your team's punter unless he does something exceptional, but by GOD rookie Jake Camarda had a highlight moment for the ages. With about a minute to go, forced to punt at midfield, the long snapper muffed the ball and Camarda had to scramble to recover the fumble and get rid of the ball. Rather than take it out of bounds to give Carolina excellent field position, he made a rugby-styled kick - legal - that miraculously stayed in-bounds and bounced for a touch to the Panthers' 2-yard line. Turns out, Camarda practiced those kind of short punts a lot when he was in college, so he kept cool and played on pure instinct. The punt was negated by a Bucs' penalty, but on the subsequent punt Camarda still pinned the Panthers to the 8-yard line with barely 40 seconds left that the Panthers couldn't work with. ESPN's been playing the rugby kick on a loop all evening long. If Camarda doesn't get Special Teams Player of the Week award for that punt, up yours NFL.
Remember my grousing on Draft Weekend about us drafting a punter in the Fourth Round? I TAKE IT ALL BACK. CAMARDA WAS WORTH IT. EVERY TEAM SHOULD DRAFT A PUNTER, SERIOUSLY. EXTEND HIS CONTRACT, LICHT.
3) For all that went right for the Bucs today, there were still troubling problems.
3a) The running game is still going nowhere. Fournette and White combined for 50 yards on the ground barely making 3 yard per carry. The offensive line gave up three sacks on Brady, and a number of false starts and holding penalties that killed a drive or two. Brady may have regained his groove with Evans, but he still hasn't gotten fully in-sync with Julio Jones. Whatever Brady had working with TE Cade Otton earlier in the season has vanished the last three weeks, and Brady is showing some frustration about that.
3b) The Bucs defense, which often did a good job this season, had one of their weaker games giving up too many passing yards and giving up Red Zone TDs they shouldn't have. Having Carlton Davis out with injury exposed our remaining CBs poor coverage.
3c) And you hate to see it, but the veteran field goal kicker Ryan Succop is clearly aging out. He missed a 53-yarder, and has been unable to kick it well outside of the 50-yard range for most of the season. He may have been clutch for us in the Super Bowl run two seasons ago, but now... sigh. Bucs are going to need to look at drafting a kicker in next April's draft. Just don't waste a draft pick trading UP for one, OKAY LICHT?! NOT AGAIN. Just draft one in the Sixth, don't make any moves to do it, just sit and wait and get best available guy from a Big Ten program or something...
4) Statistics of the game: Turnovers. The Bucs finally forced three key takeaways which helped in field position and scoring chances. Panthers only garnered a fumble recovery deep in their territory, and could not convert it. Bucs at least scored 10 points (and failed on a FG on the third turnover). This is what I miss from our Bucs defense. When we forced these turnovers - be it fumble or INT - we give our offense more chances to score. We have ballhawks, reportedly, and I've seen them play well in the Arians/Bowles run since 2020, but dammit we need more going into the postseason.
4a) PENALTIES WILL BE THE DEATH OF US. Both the Bucs and the Panths got flagged eight times each, with Carolina getting three first downs where the Bucs gained two first downs. Again, we had drives stall thanks to brain-fart penalties.
4b) Third down conversion rate: Both teams were pretty miserable today, Panthers getting 4-of-11 with the Bucs getting 4-of-15 (!). The Bucs did do well on Fourth downs going two-for-two to keep drives alive.
5) With this victory, Buccaneers clinched the NFC South division, but doing so with a meager 8-8 record and no guarantee they'll be 9-8 and over .500 to go into the playoffs.
Still, this is an incredible run the Bucs have going. Three straight postseasons, something we've only had once before (four straight) in the glory days of the Dungy-Gruden years of 1999-2002, which culminated in a Super Bowl win. This IS the first time the Bucs have gone back-to-back division titles, which is nothing to sneeze at.
The downside to this is that we stumbled into this winning a weak division, leaving us with a postseason with barely any good odds of making it back to the title game. We'll get one home game, guaranteed, and likely against Dallas (or Philly). Everything else will be road games, against teams that either beat us - 49ers - or could - Minnesota (or Dallas or Philly).
6) In other NFL news, the Minnesota Vikings had an opportunity to clinch the overall seed for the NFC playoffs, but my GOD they got stomped on by a very angry and sadistic Packers team. Green Bay was up 41-3 at one point and showed no mercy.
6a) It's gonna be a big fight between Green Bay and Detroit for the final playoff spot in the NFC. ...I can't believe I just said that about Detroit.
6b) The NFC East still isn't settled yet, as the Eagles have nose-dived with Jalen Hurts out hurt (yes, I WENT THERE, DEAL WITH IT) and the Cowboys playing with more confidence heading into the final week. Meanwhile, the Giants clinched a wild card making the networks happy a New York market team is back in the postseason, while the Washington Whatevers, um, well. The good news is that their evil owner Dan Snyder may sell the team during the offseason.
6c) Does anybody want to face the San Francisco 49ers this postseason? They're becoming the juggernaut team at exactly the right moment to stomp through the playoffs to the Super Bowl.
6d) Does anybody want to face the Jacksonville Jaguars? They might WIN the AFC South division.
6e) A lot of Miami Dolphins woes have been their injury problems, especially the concussions that Tua's suffered this year. Seriously, man, given how Tua is showing symptoms that won't go away, he needs to retire and start treatment, whatever treatment is out there, to get his brain better. Look at what happened to Vincent Jackson (RIP), nobody wants a repeat of that. :(
6f) It'd have been nicer if the San Diego Chargers won their wild card standing in San Diego where they belong. Bloody evil owners...
7) In professional college football news: I keep seeing these Bama fans screaming on social media that they should have been in the BCS playoffs, but screw you Crimson Tide, you lost games when they mattered most, and TCU proved they deserved their spot with a solid win in a tight game against Michigan. Hell, Ohio St. proved they deserved the 4-seed by almost upsetting Georgia.
7a) Did any of these other bowl games really matter? Half of them went unwatched and unloved, with 6-loss teams playing other 6-loss teams for some meaningless trophy with a corporate name on it that won't be on that trophy five years from now. These bowls may have mattered once, but they added so many they became jokes, and they're about to become totally irrelevant as the NCAA expands the playoffs to 12 teams. Sorry, Gasparilla Bowl, your time is up.
8) In professional hockey news: CMON TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING KEEP WINNING GAMES! Gods, I must say this every week, even when the Bolts DO win...
8a) We are witnessing the likes of Ovechkin and Stamkos play Hall of Fame-level careers this season, Ovechkin making goals to put him rarified company of Gretsky, with Stamkos racking up assists and goals that already put him in the top 100 for points all-time.
8b) With any luck, we could see a Lightning - Knights Stanley Cup matchup this summer.
9) In professional baseball news: The Tampa Bay Rays have done nothing to improve the hitting talent we need for the coming 2023 season. We're going to be relying on pitching and defense again, and Gods help us getting a 90-win season without ANYBODY batting over .250 for the year. /headesk
9a) AND WHERE'S THE DAMN YBOR BALLPARK?! HURRY UP, TAMPA, WE NEED FUNDERS.
10) Next week: Tampa Bay travels to Atlanta to close out the season, looking for a win against a division foe that honestly has little to play for but pride, and could well tank the game for a slightly better drafting spot. Bucs may not need the game either, other than to head into the playoffs with a win streak and to make sure it's a 9-8 record over .500 so we don't look TOO terrible on paper when we face the number five seed.
COMMENT BELOW, DAMMIT. Someone's got to yell at me for being a jinx.