LUCK. SHEER EFFING LUCK. And the composure of veterans who have been here before who will keep games close and win in the Fourth Quarter.
1a) Tampa is stumbling into this postseason wounded, a losing record, never a good sign of having enough talent or coaching on hand to play through a lineup of teams that are the best of the best this season. When looking back at the 17 games, the Bucs either won games too close, through last-minute miracles, or were embarrassed by blowouts by clearly better teams like Kansas City and San Francisco.
1b) So the odds of the Bucs going all the way are sharper than the 2020 season where we were wild card road warriors, slashing through a weak Washington team, catching New Orleans at their worst possible moment, and then overpowering Green Bay early enough to eke out the NFC title. This year, Tampa Bay is the team most likely to suffer early and go home.
2) That said, the first round vs. the Dallas Cowboys is surprisingly even chances for the Bucs. Despite their record, the Cowboys are shaky on offense with QB Dak Prescott underplaying and coughing up far too many turnovers. As the first week win proved, the Bucs' defense is built to hamper the 'Boys offense. It then becomes a question if the Bucs offense will show up and score more points.
2a) If the Bucs get past that, we're then facing the likelihood of traveling either to Philadelphia as the 1 vs 4 seeding, back west to San Francisco if there's a wild card upset of Minnesota, or to Minnesota if there's somehow a Seattle Seahawks upset of the 49ers. Of those matchups, going against the Vikings would be on paper the easiest chance for the Bucs to upset: That is a team that won far too many close games and were blown out in their losses so badly that they're the first 13-win team in NFL history with a negative point differential. It's an open secret the Vikings fare poorly in prime time situations, and there's nothing more prime time than postseason.
The Bucs may not have the luck to face the Vikes: Minnesota is expected to be the upset special of the wild card weekend. If we get past Cowboys, Niners are the most likely opponent...
3) Just in case, through sheer luck and divine intervention by the Football Gods, the Tampa Bay Bucs DO succeed in reaching the Super Bowl, which AFC matchup would be the one most favorable for the Bucs?
Historically speaking, Buffalo. The Bills are one of the few teams in league history to have a losing record vs. the Bucs. There's also the QB history of Tom Brady owning the Bills for the last 20 years or so (as both Patriot and Buccaneer). Past that, next best matchup would be Kansas City, as a rematch of the Super Bowl two years prior. Either one would gladden the NFL powers and TV networks, who would otherwise be vomiting into the nearest trashcans if a losing team like the Bucs reached the big money show like the Super Bowl.
3a) In terms of ratings, the Bucs would not be the top choice for the money guys. They'll want the big market teams with large fanbases - The Giants, the Eagles, the 49ers, the godless Cowboys - representing the NFC. As long as there's a big market AFC team with the global fanbase - the Dolphins, the Bills, the Chiefs, maybe even the Chargers in spite of L.A. still not accepting them - to counter, they can live with Tampa Bay getting to the big game.
3b) A Bucs - Jaguars Super Bowl, while hilariously a "Florida rivalry" matchup that could draw viewers, would kill the ratings with two barely-winnable teams upsetting other juggernauts. It would appeal to the narrative of Veteran Tom Brady vs. Young Gun Trevor Lawrence, it would be a chance for a first-time team like Jacksonville pull off a Super Bowl for the ages, but not much else. Same could be said for a Bucs - Bengals showdown, with Joe Burrow as the Young Gun (much like Mahomes was for SB LV).
3c) If the NFL is praying for ANY Super Bowl matchup, I would argue for a San Francisco vs Buffalo. The narratives are plentiful and dramatic, as well as a solid East Coast vs West Coast audience. Buffalo searching for their first SB, playing in honor of a wounded teammate, against a classic dynasty team of the 1980s that has yet to face the Bills in this game. The Niners, winning by defense and with a backup rookie QB in Purdy who is close to making the Last Guy Picked (Mr. Irrelevant) into the biggest good luck charm in football history.
Pretty much anything with the Niners - a rivalry matchup against the Bengals, a revenge game against the Chiefs - would be ratings gold for the NFL, so that's what they're hoping for the most.
3d) Past that, any matchup with Philadelphia with a dominant AFC team - again, Bills would be best, Chiefs next-best - would make the league offices and network beancounters happy.
3e) Weirdest Super Bowl matchups? Minnesota vs Buffalo. Two of the worst teams in Super Bowl history, both winless 4 times. Someone would FINALLY have to win one, and it'll be like opening the Seventh Seal to signal the End Times, people. Minnesota vs. Cincy (3-time winless) would be the same problem, and neither are big-market teams with global audiences: the allure of "Finally, a Winner" will be the biggest draw.
I already mentioned Tampa vs. Jacksonville, a game guaranteed to drive league accountants to leap out of tall buildings like they were Russian dissidents.
3f) With Tua and Lamar out at QB for both Miami and Baltimore, NOBODY Is talking about either team going far this postseason. Even the weak Tampa squad has better odds to move up the bracket.
4) This all said, how are the Bucs going to do against Dallas?
4a) Tampa's defense has to show up with the zone look that's apparently flummoxing Prescott all season long. With all that, the run defense needs to fill in the gaps, which is where Gholston, Vea (if healthy) and Hicks are needed. This has been the one key to the Bucs success this year: Keeping the opposing teams from scoring more than 16 points a game.
4b) And this has been something the fans have been screaming all year, but the Bucs offense has GOT to open up the playbook to more play-action. Let Brady cook, give the receivers the chances to get open, ease into the running game once the offense is working well, instead of relying on runs too early and in short-yardage situations (which opposing defenses have been shutting down to our discomfort).
4c) The Bucs could win vs. the Cowboys, but it will be a close game similar to how Week One played out. It will depend a lot on if our offense will score.
Tampa Bay 23 - Dallas 17, may the Gods be merciful
5) P.S. CMON TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING. WE NEED ALL THE WINS.