TAMPA — Their first training camp practice was July 26. The first regular-season game was Sept. 10.
But, come on, we all know the 2023 season begins this Sunday for the Bucs and their fans.
When you play in the NFL’s remedial division there is no other way to look at it. Of course, every game on the schedule matters but outlasting the other bystanders in the NFC South is the only way the Bucs can dream of quasi-glory.
And that’s why Sunday’s game against the Saints is as close to must-win as it gets in early October.
“We’ve got a big divisional opponent coming up this week,” coach Todd Bowles said Tuesday morning. “If we can get to the bye week at 3-1, nobody will be crying about that.”
He’s right, of course. A win in New Orleans would make the Bucs the team to beat in the South with nearly a quarter of the season behind them.
Carolina hasn’t had a winning season since 2017 and is 0-3 with a rookie quarterback in charge. The Falcons have managed to win two of their first three games, but they are also riding a five-season losing streak and a downturn seems likely if not inevitable.
That leaves the Bucs. And the Saints. Just like the past three seasons.
If you need a refresher course on the relative importance of this rivalry, consider their two games last season: Tampa Bay beat New Orleans 20-10 in Week 2 and 17-16 on a Monday night in December. Reverse the outcome of those two games and the Bucs would have been 6-11 and in last place in Tom Brady’s farewell season. Instead, they won the division and extended their playoff streak to a franchise-record three consecutive seasons.
All because they beat the Saints twice.
If you think about it, getting smoked 25-11 by the Eagles on Monday night might have been depressing but it wasn’t particularly damaging. When the schedule was released, most reasonable-minded fans wrote that game off as a probable loss. And that’s acceptable as long as you take care of business elsewhere on the schedule.
From that standpoint, last season was a pretty good blueprint for success in a low-rent division. The Bucs went 4-7 outside the division, but were 4-2 against their South rivals. That was good enough to get them a home playoff game in January.
“It’s a long season and you have a lot of chances to fix things,” said safety Ryan Neal. “So I’m looking forward to just getting back at it, breaking this (Eagles) film down and getting better, man. We’ve got a big week coming up so we’ve got to figure out what we need to do and what we need to fix.”
The first thing that needs fixing is a running game that’s going nowhere.
It’s admirable that Bowles and offensive coordinator Dave Canales are so adamant about being able to run the ball, but a failed running attack is even worse than an abandoned running attack. Tampa Bay is in the top half of the league in rushing attempts, but they’re dead last when it comes to yards per carry at 2.8. As bad as they were rushing the ball in 2022, they’re even worse this season. More prolific, but worse.
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The secondary is also banged up, and that threatens to disrupt their entire defensive philosophy. The Bucs depend on defensive backs like Antoine Winfield Jr. and Christian Izien to blitz the quarterback, but only because Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean are shutdown cornerbacks. If Davis and/or Dean are hobbled, there’s a lot more risk involved in sending a safety or nickel corner after the passer.
The good news is the Saints may be in worse shape.
Quarterback Derek Carr sustained a shoulder injury on Sunday that has him listed week to week and contributed to New Orleans’ Super Bowl odds dropping from 25-to-1 to 34-to-1 overnight. The Saints are still three-point favorites at home against the Bucs, but the prospect of a Jameis Winston start can’t be appealing in New Orleans.
“We’ve got a tough ballgame coming up; division rival, going to their house, so we’ve got to have a short-term memory,” receiver Mike Evans said. “We’ve got to rest up, recover, get some guys back hopefully, and play some good ball.”
A 3-1 record and an early tiebreaker advantage on the Saints would be huge.
The season starts Sunday.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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