When we woke up this morning, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were sitting alone atop the NFC South standings for the first time since Dec. 31, 2007.
Sure, you could point out that they've played only one game. You'd be right. Good for you. You're probably a lot of fun at parties.
Even so, for Bucs fans, this is a moment worth savoring. Wins have been hard to come by for far too long.
I was in the 8th grade... https://t.co/coXtMYLsKJ— Gabe Burns (@GabeBurns_DN) September 11, 2016
There's much more to prove over the next 15 games, but Sunday's 31-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons washes away at least some of the malaise of recent seasons.
The start of the game, however, wasn't promising. Tampa Bay looked so awful early that one snarky writer noted that this season's Bucs resembled last season's.
Just one quarter, but #Bucs of this season looking like Bucs of 2015. Coming up empty on third down and in red zone, costly penalties.— Thomas Bassinger (@tometrics) September 11, 2016
Strong take, Bassinger.
Not long after that tweet, the Bucs, trailing 13-10, took possession at their own 25-yard line with less than two minutes left in the first half. Coach Dirk Koetter later called this the turning point of the game, which saved me the trouble of looking up win probability statistics and figuring it out myself. Thanks, coach.
On the first play of the drive, the Bucs lined up in the shotgun with four receivers and a running back next to Winston. It was as much of a declaration as it was a formation. We're not going to settle. We want the touchdown.
After his first down pass bounced off Adam Humphries' hands, Winston turned to Cameron Brate. The tight end caught three straight passes, each one short and to the right side of the field, and the Bucs crossed into Falcons territory.
Three plays later, with the offense in danger of stalling, Winston attacked cornerback Desmond Trufant, who had intercepted him earlier. On third and 10, he hit Vincent Jackson on a hitch route to give the Bucs a fresh set of downs at the Atlanta 30-yard line.
The clock ticking — 39 seconds, 38, 37 — the broadcast showed Winston signaling that he would spike the ball to stop the clock.
Instead, he took the snap from under center and exploited the Falcons' soft coverage, connecting with Jackson on a short out route to the right sideline.
The 7-yard gain preserved the Bucs' final timeout. While they didn't need to use it, it still proved valuable.
On second and 3 from the 23-yard line, Tampa Bay again lined up in the shotgun with four receivers and running back Charles Sims in the backfield. Atlanta dropped seven defenders into coverage to guard against a potential touchdown or sideline target. No one bothered covering Sims or Brate.
Winston did the math on his options downfield — three receivers vs. seven defenders — and checked down to Sims over the middle. Thanks to the previous timeout-saving play, he didn't need to press for a touchdown.
Koetter said he and his staff talked about checkdowns all week.
"Atlanta's a zone-based defense," he said. "They take deep drops. They try to force you to check the ball down. We've been preaching to Jameis, 'Check it down, check it down, check it down.' "
Sims did more than pick up a chunk of yards. Sources tell me that the Falcons' team doctors worked long through the night tending to all the broken ankles.
Count those missed tackles. There's at least one for each of the points the Bucs scored on the play.
"It just shows you that when you get guys … the ball with space, they can make anything happen," Winston said. "Charles — we say all the time that he's the most underrated back in this league — and he made a great play."
At the start of the drive, the Bucs' win probability (Hey! I looked it up anyway!) stood at 40.4 percent. After the touchdown and extra point, it jumped to 66.2 percent. Winston completed 7 of 10 passes for 75 yards during the drive and 14 of 17 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns in the second quarter (he was 3-of-7 for 15 yards and an interception in the first quarter).
It might not have been a true no-huddle offense — Tampa Bay actually huddled on eight of the 10 plays — but execution of a two-minute offense in a tight game has been a rarity.
Last season, the Bucs started 11 drives inside the final two minutes of the first half. They scored a touchdown twice, once against the Saints in Week 2 and once against the Falcons in Week 8. The last time they sustained a touchdown drive of at least 75 yards that started inside the final two minutes of the first half? Week 15 of the 2013 season vs. the 49ers.
"That's a big booster because then we had the opportunity to get two scores up on them right then," Winston said of the Sims touchdown. "That's how we kind of took the game away."
The Bucs opened the third quarter with a markedly different approach from the dink-and-dunk drive before halftime. But that's not to say they were any less methodical.
On first and 10 from the Atlanta 30-yard line, Winston lined up in the shotgun with Mike Evans out to his left and Brate, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Cecil Shorts out to his right. The Falcons countered with the Cover 3 (the single high safety and outside cornerbacks are each responsible for deep passes into their third of the field).
Each receiver ran a vertical route, stressing the zone coverage. Evans drew the attention of the left cornerback and Shorts drew the attention of the right cornerback. Brate and Seferian-Jenkins both ran deep down the middle. The safety bit on Brate's route, a decision that left Seferian-Jenkins one-on-one with linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.
This time, Winston took a shot, dropping a dime to Seferian-Jenkins, who made the diving catch in the end zone to give the Bucs a 24-13 lead. It was Seferian-Jenkins' first and only target of the game.
"When you got a guy like 87 that can run the way that he can and as big as he is, you just want to give him a chance to get the football," Winston said. "That's what we're expecting from Austin all the time. That's the type of guy he is. He's a superstar."
The touchdown lifted the Bucs' win probability further, to 88.4 percent. In the span of four minutes, Tampa Bay seized control of the game and, for now, the NFC South standings.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.