TAMPA — Tom Brady has been as much a fixture in the NFL postseason as cold weather. In fact, since becoming the Patriots starter in 2000, he has only missed the playoffs twice and one of those times came in 2008 after he tore his ACL in the season opener.
As remarkable as that record is, the playoffs are not guaranteed, even with an expanded format. The story of the 2020 Bucs will be written In the coming week with home games against the Los Angeles Rams on Monday night and the Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday.
We will know if the Bucs are legitimate contenders for the NFC South or merely hoping to sneak into the postseason as a wild-card team.
The CBS Sportsline computer sees the Bucs (7-3) landing the fifth spot, which is the first wild card. They trail the Saints by a half game in the NFC South, though realistically it’s a game and a half because New Orleans owns the first head-to-head tiebreaker. The computer sees the Bucs with only a 17.5 percent chance of winning the division but views them as a near lock to make the playoffs (84.6 percent).
Of course, we already know the Saints are the best team in the NFC South. Their convincing wins over the Bucs are proof of that.
The injury to quarterback Drew Brees, who was placed on injured reserve due to fractured ribs and is expected to miss at least three weeks, may provide a slight opening for Tampa Bay.
The Bucs already have matched their win total for 2019, but that was never the goal. You don’t sign a 43-year-old Brady, trade for tight end Rob Gronkowski and add receiver Antonio Brown, and running backs Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy as free agents unless it’s Super Bowl or bust.
That’s why coach Bruce Arians told his team prior to last Sunday’s game at Carolina that the playoffs have already begun for them.
He isn’t running from the standings. The Packers (7-2), Saints (7-2), Seahawks (7-2) and Eagles (3-5-1) lead their divisions. The Rams (6-3) and Cardinals (6-4) are still alive in the NFC West but appear headed for wild-card contention.
That makes Monday night’s game critical for the Bucs if they wind up fighting for the final wild-card spot with the Rams.
“They’re must-win games.,” Gronkowski said. “They’re basically playoff games and this is when teams either take off or when teams tank. We want to be a team that takes off.”
Brady generally keeps his focus on the next opponent. But he admitted to former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss on NFL Radio that he would like to see some of his new teammates experience the postseason for the first time in their careers.
“A lot of guys on the team have never made the playoffs,” Brady said. “I want them to experience that. It’s an amazing part of being a professional player when you get to that time in the year. ... We really have a great opportunity.”
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Six teams are 6-3 or better in the NFC and are vying for seven playoff spots. There’s very little room for a slip up because the Bears (5-5), Vikings (4-5) and Lions (4-5) are back in the wild-card hunt. The Bucs lose the head-to-head tie-breaker to the Bears and still have to play the Vikings and Lions.
The playoffs would be an overdue reward for longtime Bucs such as Lavonte David, Mike Evans, Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith.
The Bucs are 4-3 in the conference, the second tiebreaker, which is why beating the Rams would be such a lift. Four of the Bucs’ final six games are at home and they have a bye week following the Chiefs’ game.
“I think around November things get heightened, obviously,” David said. “People start trying to put out their best effort. At the beginning of the season you get a lot of different things from different people, but around this time you know what you’re going to get from different people and different teams as far as game plan situations. The playmaking and all that steps up big time. It’s all about the preparation now.”
The Bucs hung a double nickel on the Rams in Los Angeles last season, winning 55-40. While it was the most points scored in club history, the Bucs defense didn’t fare very well despite three interceptions and a fumble recovery, which was a scoop-and-score by Ndamukong Suh.
“I don’t think we thrived; they scored 40 points,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “That’s not thriving but we got some key turnovers and it was a shootout for sure. We made some plays, but we gave up winning the ball game. I thought that was one of our worst games, actually. So we’ve got to be better than what we played last year. We don’t want to give up 40 points.”