TAMPA — The Buccaneers didn’t just beat the Panthers on Sunday.
They broke them.
When we last saw the Panthers, they were zigzagging through a befuddled Bucs defense. On their way to a 42-28 win, they scored touchdowns on five of their first six possessions. At 6-2, they looked like locks for the playoffs.
They aren’t zigzagging anymore. They’re free falling. Down the standings. They haven’t won a game since.
In a twist, it’s Ron Rivera and not Dirk Koetter who is fielding questions about his job security in postgame news conferences. His response Sunday: “I am not going to address that question. Don’t not ask that question again please.”
Rivera’s safe, for now. But the Panthers started making changes Monday morning, firing several assistant coaches, according to the NFL Network.
Whew. Life in the NFL moves fast.
A month ago, the Bucs looked as if they were auditioning for a Three Stooges reboot. Now? Well, sometime in the past few weeks, the Bucs decided to stop being the Bucs. In front of a camera, most players talk about “just being ourselves.” Around here, that’s a bad idea. Whoever you are, don’t be that.
Take Jameis Winston. Since he regained his starting job, he hasn’t committed a single turnover. Not one. Which means Koetter has enough leftover game balls to give away during postgame victory speeches.
By the way, anyone remember the name of the backup quarterback?
Says here it’s, um, Ryan Fitzgerald. Meh. Never heard of him.
Anyway, about that defense — or perhaps more accurately — what’s left of the defense: As the late Notorious B.I.G. once said, “Nobody, no problems.” Or something like that. Backup defensive backs Andrew Adams, Javien Elliott and De’Vante Harris made Cam Newton look like the Winston of October, picking off four of his passes and breaking up 10 others. Adams was the recipient of three game balls, one for each of his interceptions.
Ah, everyone’s looking good today, from the field to the front office. Even the general manager. At last, he has found a kicker who, you know, makes his kicks.
A season that has been declared dead at least three times already suddenly isn’t. The Bucs are … “alive” might be an overstatement, so how about “not dead”? It’s safe to step away from the bedside and grab some Fritos from the vending machine.
Sure, you never really know with the Bucs. Danger is omnipresent. A funny thing happened Sunday, though. When the Panthers, down 10-7, reached the Tampa Bay 25-yard line late in the second quarter, the game began to tilt in their favor. Their win probability hit 60.3 percent, according to numberFire.
But that’s as high as it got. From there, the Bucs pieced together one of their more impressive sequences of the season, starting with Harris’ deflection of a potential touchdown pass to Curtis Samuel.
Harris’ breakup took on even greater significance because of what happened next. Elliott jumped in front of a pass intended for D.J. Moore and returned it 50 yards to the Carolina 32.
“All it takes is that one little spark,” Elliott said of the interception, the first of his career. “(Turnovers) come in bunches. You’ve just got to trust the process, stay true to it and trust and believe in the person next to you.”
On the Bucs’ next possession, a 20-yard strike from Winston to Mike Evans got the offense into the red zone with 51 seconds left in the first half.
“(Winston) threw that thing so early, when it came out of his hands I thought it was going to get past Mike,” Koetter said. “Mike put a little extra secret sauce on his route — it’s a rhythm cut.”
Four plays later, a third and long, the Panthers forced Winston to improvise. Seeing that Carolina had his first reads covered, he rolled to the right and zipped a pass to Chris Godwin in the back of the end zone. Godwin was supposed to run a post route to the middle of the field but cut back to the right when he saw Winston on the move. The touchdown flipped the game, as it increased Tampa Bay’s lead to 17-7 and its win probability to 70.6 percent.
Jameis finds Godwin in the back of the end zone for 6! pic.twitter.com/46rYY8qZzq— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) December 2, 2018
That’s not how you draw it up. That’s playmaking.
“Jameis does a great job scrambling and extending the play and giving us opportunities to make plays on the ball,” Godwin said. “Just recognizing that situation, I was just trying to find an open spot. Jameis always has his eyes upfield. He gave me an opportunity, and it was up to me to make the play.”
We’ve seen flashes of this before — in 2016, when the Bucs won five straight games to get to 8-5. The ball bounced their way a bit during that stretch, but the offense didn’t self-destruct and the defense forced takeaways.
“You’ve got to credit the perseverance that our defense has had throughout this whole year,” Winston said. “We’ve had so many injuries on that side of the ball and for them to come in, especially these past two weeks and create turnovers and give us a chance has been definitely a great reason why we are winning.”
Indeed. As the Bucs have shown, they’re a tough team to beat when they score early and take care of the ball. They’ve won 11 straight games when they’ve had a lead at halftime and 12 of the past 13 games when they’ve had a turnover margin of plus-2 or better.
The Panthers during their four-game losing streak? They’ve trailed at halftime in three of those games and lost the turnover battle in every one.
The mark of a bad team is a team that beats itself. The Bucs know this better than anyone.
NFL standings: Tampa Bay edition
Because of their win, the Bucs qualify to be the last team on those flashy “in the hunt” playoff-picture graphics you see during game broadcasts. Their chances are slim, but it has been done before. Since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, eight teams lost seven of their first 12 games and went on to reach the postseason. They are: the 1990 Saints (5-7), 1995 Chargers (5-7), 1996 Jaguars (5-7), 2007 Washington (5-7), 2008 Chargers (4-8), 2013 Chargers (5-7), 2014 Panthers (3-8-1) and 2015 Washington (5-7).
If you’re the realistic type, the bad news is that by winning Sunday the Bucs dropped two spots, from 10 to 12, in the 2019 NFL draft order. Their chances of landing a top-five pick fell from 20.5 percent to 11.6 percent. (Record and percent chance of landing a top-five pick in parentheses. Odds courtesy of Football Outsiders.)
1. 49ers (2-10, 98.5 percent)
2. Raiders (2-10, 95.7 percent)
3. Jets (3-9, 85.0 percent)
4. Cardinals (3-9, 82.8 percent)
5. Lions (4-8, 32.5 percent)
6. Falcons (4-8, 27.6 percent)
7. Giants (4-8, 15.7 percent)
8. Bills (4-8, 17.8 percent)
9. Jaguars (4-8, 9.6 percent)
10. Packers (4-7-1, 4.4 percent)
11. Browns (4-7-1, 10.9 percent)
12. Bucs (5-7, 11.6 percent)
• Winston has completed multiple touchdown passes without throwing an interception or fumbling in back-to-back games. Before this season, he had done that just once. He also made plays with his legs, racking up 48 rushing yards. The rest of the team had 47.
At what point do we consider this level of play a trend?
• After his Godwin’s touchdown grab, the stadium cannon fired six times and then one additional time in remembrance of DeSean Jackson’s tenure in Tampa Bay. Jackson, the Bucs’ marquee free-agent signing before the 2017 season, missed the game because of a thumb injury.
• Welcome back, Lavonte David. The Bucs' top linebacker, who had missed two games because of a knee injury, was one of the most disruptive players on the field Sunday. He not only sacked Cam Newton but also caused a deflection that led to an interception.
• Gerald McCoy looked like an All-Pro again. The defensive tackle harassed Newton all afternoon, and though he didn’t take him down for a sack, he recorded six pressures, including two hits.
• Next up for the Bucs: the 10-2 Saints. Tampa Bay has won its last two meetings against New Orleans but has never won three straight. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Bucs defense can generate pressure against Drew Brees and the Saints top-five offensive line as often as it did against Newton.
What I got right
So it wasn’t exactly going out on a limb, but I liked Winston’s chances of not only tying the team record for career touchdown passes but also breaking it. It didn’t take long. He tied the record five minutes into the first quarter and broke it with a few seconds left in the second quarter.
What I got wrong
Though the Bucs consistently generated pressure against 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens, I figured the Panthers would be able to neutralize the pass rush. Instead, Tampa Bay recorded a season-high 19 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. That was three times as many as it recorded in the teams’ last meeting.
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.