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Pirates plunder but Cowboys find the gold; Dallas advances to Round 2, Bucs sent home

Todd Bowles’ first season as Tampa’s head coach ends, predictably.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have just concluded their season in a predictably disappointing fashion. The Buccaneers have spent most of 2022 spinning their wheels in the mud. The season has been a talented team, sprinting themselves into exhaustion on a hamster wheel.

The Buccaneers started this season against these very same Dallas Cowboys. Long before anybody knew the underwhelming version of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that this season would reveal. The Bucs came out and ran the ball through the Dallas defense for 152 yards, 127 of which were contributed by Leonard Fournette. Tampa’s defense shut down Dak Prescott and then Cooper Rush, holding Dallas to just three points. Tom Brady found Mike Evans in the end zone on a very typical Tampa Tom to Mike Evans fade route and all was hunky-dory. Tampa Bay very quickly came crashing down to earth two weeks later, when they failed to score the required 15 points to beat the Green Bay Packers. This sensation was a feeling of ineptitude that became very standard for this season’s Buccaneers. Through the struggle, the Bucs inefficiently fought their way into the postseason for today’s matchup, in Raymond James Stadium against the Dallas Cowboys.

Of course, while the large-scale scope of the season will be a surefire topic of conversation in the coming months, the Buccaneers just played a playoff game, and any time Tampa Bay plays a football game there are certain expectations of the team as well as the individual players on the field. Reality can be uniform in lockstep with expectations or may be something else entirely, here’s:

Who we thought would do well and did:

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Chris Godwin- Even amongst a talented roster there are holes. One of the major holes in the Dallas Cowboys roster that had been noted coming into this game was the secondary, more specifically, the cornerback who would be starting opposite Trevon Diggs. Diggs’ play has garnered him respect and status as a top-flight corner in the league. While one corner is great to have, if you only have one then you’re stuck with the short end of the stick versus the Buccaneers. With as good a one-two punch at the receiver position as there is in NFL the Buccaneers have the rare ability to just pick and choose the individual matchup, they would like to expose without needing to force the ball into the hands of their best player. Times like this are why you pay Chris Godwin big money to make sure he’s under contract for your team. Chris Godwin flashed in this game, collecting 10 catches. Godwin proved to be a very difficult cover for the Cowboys’ defense and was clearly a pivotal part of Tampa Bay’s game plan coming in.

Who we thought would do well and didn’t:

Tampa’s passing defense- The Buccaneers’ pass defense wasn’t what it needed to be today. The Cowboys carry a passing game that is loaded with playmakers and a quarterback who isn’t afraid to air it out. Dak Prescott has spent much of this season putting the ball in the air and simultaneously putting it in harm’s way. A large part of the Buccaneers holding down the Dallas offense was set to be hinged upon Tampa’s defense converting on opportunities to give extra possessions and excellent field position to their offense. The Cowboys were able to move the ball through the air without much resistance from Tampa’s defense. The Bucs’ pass rush couldn’t find an avenue to Dak Prescott nor could Tampa Bay catch the predictably dangerous passes Prescott attempted as he posted over 300 yards on the stat sheet and 31 points on the scoreboard.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Tom Brady- The Buccaneers’ passer has had an up and down year. The Bucs offense has not been consistent all season and neither has the man at the helm. Captaining a ship that has been taking on water, the Buccaneers while a talented offense have been ransacked with injuries. With injuries at key positions hampering the formerly explosive Tampa Bay attack, the Bucs were forced to grind slowly through the regular season. Every game was an uphill battle with each drive feeling like a hike. Knocked down, but never out, Tom Brady was still able to chart a course for a home playoff game. Arrival in the game was unlikely and could be regarded as surprising. Brady and the Bucs meandered through the regular season without much urgency, except for a few glimpses of late game heroics. No comic book hero could have saved Brady in Tampa today. Tampa’s offense was not able to flip a ‘playoff switch’ and looked, unfortunately, like it had most of the season.

Who we thought might struggle and did:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive line- The offensive line in Tampa Bay has been written and argued over ad nauseam this season. The line came into the season suffering major offseason losses and took on more depletion as training camp and preseason injuries took their toll. The group has seen a remarkable amount of fluctuation over the past calendar year and the offense’s production as a whole has suffered because of it. Tampa Bay’s line was expected to struggle this week against the Dallas Cowboys, not just because of the ever-growing list of injuries or because of the elite level players on Dallas’ front, but because they have struggled all year. The Buccaneers went from having one of the best offensive lines in the league to just getting by with a group of guys. That group of guys received a massive boost when famed tough guy Ryan Jensen was officially activated earlier today. The Buccaneers’ beloved center has been the centerpiece of the top-tier line that has protected Tom Brady for the last two years until he went down with a knee injury during training camp this year. The return of Jensen cannot be understated still, today’s performance is far from surprising. While the group has gotten better and shown progress at times throughout the season the Cowboys’ defense represented a massive gap in the level of talent of the playing field. Dallas was supposed to win the battle and to their credit they did.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Coaching- In a battle of coaches whose fan bases may have grown tired of their message. The first edition of the Mike McCarthy versus Todd Bowles was a showdown that featured a myriad of penalties. There were 15 total in-game penalties, 10 of which were committed by the Cowboys for over 70 yards. Today, coaching showed up again. To the shock of few, Todd Bowles’ team sported a flat offense in the first half. The Buccaneers went into halftime without scoring a single point. Tampa Bay has been hoarding coaching blunders for most of this season. Amidst a flurry of questionable coaching moves Todd Bowles and Tampa’s staff may walk into the offseason with no bigger folly than allowing Luke Goedeke to start a playoff game in front of Tom Brady. Ryan Jensen’s return was outstanding to see, but he returned to the center position. Jensen, who has experience playing left guard in this offense could have been placed at guard to avoid allowing Goedeke to see the field. The Buccaneers had Robert Hainsey, who through the ups and downs of a difficult season has been a consistent starter at center, active for tonight’s game.

Who we thought might struggle and didn’t:

Julio Jones- Jones hasn’t had the impact on this season many thought he might when Tampa Bay signed him over the summer. Tonight, Bucs fans saw the rare Julio Jones sighting. Jones finished the game with over 70 yards and a deep ball touchdown reception, the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest, for a Tampa Bay wide receiver.

Game MVP:

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Ryan Jensen- Jensen was a piece of an ugly puzzle tonight, known as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive line. This is an appreciation-MVP award. In a game where the Bucs were lifeless, the only player to show any fight was the man who hasn’t played all season. Jensen patiently waited and fought his way back to make himself available for his team in the postseason. Jensen put his body on the line for the Buccaneers and he was rewarded with a degrading performance by his peers. In the second half, he let his frustrations out, as he drew a 15-yard penalty for his involvement in a scuffle. Jensen took this loss personally and that was visible. Tampa Bay fans should appreciate a player who cares and wears it on his sleeve, a characteristic which some of his teammates would be benefited to try out.

The Buccaneers have had an arduous season and now, 2022 is over. The season felt long winded and draining at times and upon arrival at its conclusion the bittersweet sensation of relief merging with disappointment is powerful. The Buccaneers will now springboard, with haste, into an offseason crowded with questions. Tampa may be facing one of their most important off-seasons since Tom Brady’s arrival in 2020, the Buccaneers will need to find a way to make the decision of whether or not they would like to retool and build or take more shots at an available championship window with this core group of players.