2019 NFL playoffs: That time when Ryan Fitzpatrick was a god and the Buccaneers ruled the world

The Saints and Eagles meet each other in the playoffs Sunday. Can you believe that the Bucs beat both of them? That happened. No, really. It did.
This was every Bucs fan's Halloween costume. [Associated Press]
This was every Bucs fan's Halloween costume. [Associated Press]
Published January 12
Updated January 13

What is that feeling sweeping Tampa Bay? It’s familiar yet foreign.

Could it be … euphoria?

When was the last time there was this much hope and excitement around here?

When the Buccaneers hired Jon Gruden?

Oh, how quickly we forget …

How about after the Bucs beat the Saints and Eagles to open the 2018 season?

No, it wasn’t a dream. It actually happened. The Bucs were 2-0 and destined for a playoff run for the first time in a decade.

Fitzmagic was all anyone could talk about. Fans were growing beards. They were wearing open-chest shirts, necklaces and sunglasses. They were sharing me-mes.

They even liked DeSean Jackson.

Whew. And look at where we are now. What a tumble from “stay humble.”

Ryan Fitzpatrick, who could be beardless for all we know, is fumbling around with a Rubik’s Cube somewhere. Mike Smith is wandering through the wilderness carrying the burden of players who felt disrespected for — gasp! — being asked to play football. Dirk Koetter is dumping his Bucs clothes at Goodwill stores.

Bruce Almighty Arians is here now. He has swagger. He has the “it” factor. He has a plan. This time is going to be different.

“This is a great group,” he said this week. “I think we have the core here to win quickly.”

Side note: “We’ll win … eventually” doesn’t make for a good billboard slogan.

RELATED STORY: The true story of new Bucs coach Bruce Arians in three simple charts

Meanwhile, the Saints and Eagles — the teams the Bucs beat a long, long time ago in September — are facing each other Sunday. In the playoffs.

How can that be? How is it that the Bucs started the season by beating two playoff teams and then struggled the rest of the way? Could it be a sign that they were better than their 5-11 record suggests? Could it be, as Arians suggests, this team is ready to win quickly?

Probably not.

The larger sample is more representative. You could pin the losses on coaching, but it’s not as if this team was dripping with talent. They played 11 games decided by one score. Only four teams played more. Of their five wins, only one was a blowout, and that was against a 49ers team that traveled across the country to play a game at 10 a.m. PST.

That’s not the mark of a loaded team. Loaded teams dominate bad teams. If you had any doubts, the Associated Press All-Pro vote offered more confirmation. One player (Mike Evans) received one vote.

One explanation for the Bucs’ early-season success: They played the Saints and the Eagles at the right time, at a time when they hadn’t yet gelled and hit their strides.

To many people’s surprise, the Bucs came out in the opener against the Saints and punched them in the mouth. While everyone was arguing that the best way for Tampa Bay to beat New Orleans was to establish the run, drain the clock and keep Drew Brees, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara on the sideline, the Bucs blew off the conventional wisdom and trusted Fitzpatrick to air it out. They matched the Saints blow for blow.

• 58 yards to Jackson

• 35 yards to O.J. Howard

• 32 yards to Mike Evans

• 50 more yards to Evans

• 36 more yards to Jackson

• 35 more yards to Jackson

That’s how you get to 48 points.

They did the same thing the next week against the Eagles.

• 75 yards to Jackson

• 75 yards to Howard

• 20 more yards to Howard

That was just the first half. Before the Eagles woke from their daze, they were down 27-7. It was too late. They didn’t have the firepower. Nick Foles wasn’t throwing passes that day to Alshon Jeffery, Golden Tate and Darren Sproles. He was throwing passes to Kamar Aiken, Joshua Perkins and Shelton Gibson. Even so, let that sink in: The Bucs beat Foles. The Super Bowl LII MVP has lost one meaningful game over the past two seasons. ONE. And it happened here.

For two weeks, Tampa Bay ruled the NFL. Now, the Bucs are watching the Saints and Eagles with the rest of us. One of those teams is going to play for the NFC championship and a Super Bowl berth. There might even be a parade down Bourbon or Broad in February.

The Bucs, as it turns out, already had theirs. There was no trophy. Only a new coach.

Since losing to the Bucs in September, Eagles backup-turned Super Bowl MVP-turned starter-turned backup-turned starter again Nick Foles has won four straight starts, including a playoff win over the Bears. [Associated Press]
Since losing to the Bucs in September, Eagles backup-turned Super Bowl MVP-turned starter-turned backup-turned starter again Nick Foles has won four straight starts, including a playoff win over the Bears. [Associated Press]

Divisional-round weekend: And the winners will be …

Eagles at Saints, 4:40 p.m. Sunday: The Eagles got the kiss of death this week: a Sports Illustrated feature story. “Again Philly called on its relentlessly modest (but statistically mind-blowing) backup QB to save the season. After beating the Bears, Nick Foles and the Super Bowl champs are, justifiably, loaded with confidence. After all, they’ve seen this before.”

On the surface, it seems as if they have seen this before. But they haven’t. Last season, the Eagles were every bit as good as the opponents they faced in the playoffs. The ingredients were there — a top 10 offense and defense — but we never gave Foles a chance. We underestimated him and the coaching staff’s ability to adapt to his skill set.

As improbable as Philadelphia’s four-game win streak is — when it was 6-7, it had a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight — it isn’t as capable of a Super Bowl run. This time around, the Eagles are average offensively and defensively. Their path is much more difficult, too. Last season: home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. This season: Chicago to New Orleans to (probably) Los Angeles.

The Saints are rested and ready. Brees has never lost a home playoff game since joining New Orleans in 2006 (5-0). The pick: Saints

Cowboys at Rams, 8:15 p.m. Saturday: By Football Outsiders’ efficiency ratings, the Cowboys are the worst remaining team in the playoffs (their -5.2 percent DVOA ranked 21st). The broadcast analyst mantra is that teams need defense and a run game to win in the playoffs, and though Dallas has those components, so does Los Angeles, plus more. If the Cowboys bore us to death — uh, I mean stubbornly commit to the run — they’re going to struggle to keep up with the explosive Rams, who had the third-most pass plays of at least 20 yards (69).

But isn’t this the same Dallas defense that shut down Seattle last week and New Orleans earlier in the season? It is. But both of those games were at home, where the Cowboys performed like a top 10 unit. On the road, they were slightly below average (their 1.6 percent DVOA ranked 18th). The pick: Rams

Chargers at Patriots, 1:05 p.m. Sunday: I think we see an upset in the AFC. I’m tempted to pick the Chargers, who might be the conference’s most well-rounded team, but that’s not much more than a gut feeling. If this were a late afternoon game, I’d lean toward Los Angeles, but it’s a 1 p.m. EST game, which for the Chargers is like a 10 a.m. game. As if Bill Belichick and Tom Brady need another advantage …

It might seem silly to call a game before the the national anthem is sung, but circadian rhythms are a thing. Since 1990, there have been 10 instances of a team from the AFC West or NFC West playing an early-afternoon playoff game on the East Coast. The East Coast team won all but two of them. The 49ers beat the Panthers in 2014, and the Chargers beat the Ravens … last week. The pick: Patriots

Colts at Chiefs, 4:35 p.m. Saturday: It happens every postseason. Some team emerges as “the team no one wants to face.” The Colts are the 2019 version, and for good reason. They, not the Cowboys or Eagles, were the hottest team down the stretch. Over the final 10 games of the regular season, they had an NFL-best point differential of 117 points. They allowed 16.4 points per game in that span, second to only the Bears (14.9).

The Chiefs, of course, have Patrick Mahomes, who threw 50 touchdown passes and should be the league MVP. Counterpoint: Andy Reid probably will burn a timeout that ultimately costs Mahomes a shot at leading a game-winning drive. The pick: Colts

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.