TAMPA — The consensus in the Bucs’ locker room following their 31-17 loss to the 49ers on Sunday was that they gave away their season opener.
Pundits favored the Bucs to win, especially since San Francisco had gone winless on the East Coast in five years.
But four turnovers, two that lead to touchdowns, and costly penalties sealed a frustrating loss.
The NFL schedule makers did the Bucs no favors this season in sending them on the road for more than 24,000 miles of travel. Right now, however, the priority is rebounding quickly because they play their first two games in five days. The Bucs have a short week — approximately 96 hours — to prepare for a division road test in Carolina on Thursday night, and if they don’t return with a win, they face the 0-2 start that dooms most seasons barely before they start.
“It’s huge, especially a division game,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said of getting a win on Thursday night. “When you can get one on the road, it’s big. You never want to start 0-2.”
Playing on the road in the NFL is not easy regardless — and the Bucs have lost five of their last six games at Bank of America Stadium. Preparing on a short week adds to the challenge. Normally, players are able to recover early in the week before returning to the practice field on Wednesday. This week, the Bucs held light practices Monday and Tuesday to allow players to recover, then planned to have an abbreviated full-speed practice Wednesday before flying to Charlotte.
“That’s the harder part,” Arians said of playing on the road on Thursday. “You’re really condensing everything into walkthroughs. We sped it up to a jog (on Tuesday). We’ll actually run them tomorrow to get some sweat, talking to our doctors, get about an hour of full-speed work before we get on the plane.”
Last season, road teams playing on Thursday night on short rest were just 4-12. Dating back to 2006, road teams have won Thursday night games in short weeks just 39.1 percent of the time, including Thanksgiving games.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera would prefer to play the this Bucs team on short rest later in the year. He said the biggest challenge the Panthers face is that there’s not much tape to study a new offense and defense. Besides the Game 1 film, he said he’s been studying film of Arians’ Cardinals teams from several years ago.
“I’d rather have it against a team that we know,” Rivera said. “This is tough because we don’t know a lot. All we really have is one full game to go off of in terms of game planning and so you’ve got to go and look as a bunch of tape from two or three years ago.”
If the Bucs don’t win Thursday, not only will they open the season 0-2, but after their Week 3 home game against the Giants, they don’t play another game in Tampa until Nov. 10. That stretch includes two cross-country trips to face the Rams and Seahawks and their “home” game in London against the Panthers.
They can’t look that far ahead.
“This is a week-to-week league, so every opponent is a new opponent and we’re approaching that week with the same objective, and that’s to win,” quarterback Jameis Winston said. “We can not overlook Carolina and we have to put that last game to bed. It’s been put to bed and we’ve got to focus on this opponent and go out there and play our best game."
Still, the numbers say that teams that open the season 0-2 largely end up with losing seasons. Since 1990, only 12.6 percent of teams that began the season 0-2 made the postseason, and the average finish of teams that lost their first two games is 6-10. Just three teams won the Super Bowl after starting 0-2: the 1993 Cowboys, 2001 Patriots and 2007 Giants.
“You don’t want to go out 0-2,” tight end O.J. Howard said. “We’ve got a great ball club. We know what we can do. We just need to play smart and go out there and get the win. ... And everybody knows the quickest way to get to the playoffs is winning the division. Every game is important but those games count twice. We know how important this is. It would be a great start for us to get a division win, especially in a road game.”
One team will be on their way to an 0-2 start at the end of Thursday night. The Panthers lost their opener to the Rams at home, 30-27.
Interestingly enough, Rivera’s Panthers were one of eight teams since 2013 to start 0-2 and make the playoffs. His 2013 Carolina team won 12 of their final 14 games and won the NFC South before losing in the divisional round.
“It’s as big a challenge as you make it out to be,” Rivera said about climbing out of the 0-2 hole. “The truth is you take them one at a time and as you go through the process, you play those games and you try to win every game you can. To me, it’s what you make out of it. ... It’s like I tell our guys, it’s why you play them, to see."
In Bruce Arians’ five years as head coach in Arizona, he never had a team that started 0-2.
The Bucs have lost their first two games nine times, and never finished with a winning record in those seasons, their top finish an 8-8 mark in 1998 in Tony Dungy’s third season as a head coach. But in those nine seasons in which they started 0-2, the Bucs averaged just five wins.
The most-recent time the Bucs started 0-2 was 2014, when they finished 2-14 to clinch the No. 1 overall pick the following year that netted them Winston.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard