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End of the year review in Tampa Bay: Historic January playoff run

The Bucs won three games on the road, the Lightning opened their title defense minus a superstar, and COVID continued to disrupt schedules.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with offensive tackle Donovan Smith (76) during the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay on Jan. 24.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with offensive tackle Donovan Smith (76) during the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay on Jan. 24. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 20, 2021
Updated Dec. 22, 2021

2021 was certainly an eventful year for Florida sports, especially in Tampa Bay. Columnist John Romano is looking back at the year that was, one month at a time.

The moments will last forever. Bruce Arians calling the punt team back off the field on fourth down, and Tom Brady hitting Scotty Miller for a 39-yard touchdown two plays later at Lambeau Field. Antoine Winfield Jr. forcing a fumble to set up a touchdown against the Packers, and Sean Murphy-Bunting coming up with interceptions in three consecutive playoff games.

Related: End of the year review in Tampa Bay: Does the Lombardi Trophy float?

Yes, the individual moments stand out but do we really understand how remarkable Tampa Bay’s trek was through the NFL playoffs in January?

Only 17 teams in NFL history had gone 2-0 on the road to begin the playoffs, and 13 of them ended up losing in the conference championship game. Not the Bucs.

In the previous 45 seasons, Tampa Bay had won exactly one playoff game on the road. Then, in a span of 16 days, the Bucs won postseason games at Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay.

Related: End of year review: Five years of glory and no Final Four

They had been outscored 72-26 by New Orleans in two regular-season games, yet beat the Saints 30-20. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was 29-6 in games when the temperature dipped below freezing, yet the Bucs beat the Packers 31-26 in the snow in Green Bay.

“Everybody always asked what was our identity? We didn’t have an answer. Coach B.A. had an answer,” linebacker Devin White said after the New Orleans victory. “He said we’re some mother f--kers who are going to find a way to win a game.’ That was the best thing I ever heard.”

Just wait until Kuch gets back

Lightning center Steven Stamkos works against Blackhawks center David Kampf during a Jan. 13 game at Amalie Arena.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos works against Blackhawks center David Kampf during a Jan. 13 game at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

While fans around the NHL had a lot to say about Nikita Kucherov’s hip surgery once he returned in the postseason, no one seemed to care that the Lightning’s one-time MVP was out of the lineup when the regular season got underway. The Lightning began their Stanley Cup defense with a 4-1-1 record in January, with Brayden Point and Steven Stamos each scoring three goals in the first six games.

Nostradamus, he ain’t

“Please Stop Tweeting Me! … Will Be Ready To Go For The Playoff Game.” Bucs linebacker Devin White tweeted after he was ruled out of the season finale against Atlanta due to a positive COVID test. Turns out, White was not back in time for the Bucs’ first playoff win against Washington.

You didn’t miss much

Raptors forward OG Anunoby looks for an opening against the  Knicks at Amalie Arena last season.
Raptors forward OG Anunoby looks for an opening against the Knicks at Amalie Arena last season. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Because our Canadian friends weren’t messing around with the pandemic, the Toronto Raptors opened the NBA season with Amalie Arena as their home court. The first two months of the season were played without any fans in attendance, and the Raptors went 6-5 at Amalie in December and January. Turned out, that was the highlight of their season. They finished the year 27-45.

Can they hurry up on those vaccines?

The Florida State men’s basketball team postponed three consecutive ACC games due to COVID outbreaks in the conference. USF’s women’s basketball team had it even worse. After starting 10-1 and reaching No. 13 in the polls, the Bulls had six games canceled or postponed. “Strange, indeed,” coach Jose Fernandez said.

Take a bow, Coach Fenlon

Smiling behind his mask, Joe Fenlon celebrates wtih his team after beating King 64-34, a victory that gave Fenlon 800 for his 38-year career, all at Tampa Prep.
Smiling behind his mask, Joe Fenlon celebrates wtih his team after beating King 64-34, a victory that gave Fenlon 800 for his 38-year career, all at Tampa Prep. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

When Tampa Prep beat King 64-34 on Jan. 30, coach Joe Fenlon reached a new milestone in state history. It was his 800th victory at the school, the most for any prep basketball coach in Florida.

Words to remember

“It’s jamming pretty good right now. I don’t have any dance moves so I’m not in there.” Coach Bruce Arians on the locker room celebration after beating the Saints.

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“My new motto is, “Every time it can be worse.’ Somewhere, someone, it can always be worse.” USF sophomore forward Kristyna Brabencova following her return to the court after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

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“Hopefully, whatever was out there on my name, hopefully it will change. Because I’m not the a--hole that they say I was.” Running back Leonard Fournette on changing his reputation after coming to Tampa Bay.

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“Selfishly speaking, I’m glad I’m still a Ray.” Tampa Bay centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier after another offseason of trade rumors.

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“If you’re having a bad day, I suggest any of you just go spend a little time with Gronk.” Bucs general manager Jason Licht on the uplifting qualities of tight end Rob Gronkowski.

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“Being able to go up against one of the greatest, if not the greatest quarterback of all time, in his 150th Super Bowl, is going to be a great experience for me.” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes wasn’t so glib a couple of weeks later.

On second thought

Florida coach Dan Mullen, center, fired some of his staff after the Cotton Bowl loss. The next season, he was out the door at UF.
Florida coach Dan Mullen, center, fired some of his staff after the Cotton Bowl loss. The next season, he was out the door at UF. [ MICHAEL AINSWORTH | Associated Press ]

After giving up 52 points to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and 55 points to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, UF football coach Dan Mullen fired secondary coaches Ron English and Torrian Gray. Another 10 months would pass before Mullen fired defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. As it turns out, it was too late to save Mullen’s own job.

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