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Best NFL teams get hot when the temperatures plunge

It happened for the Bucs in 1999 and 2002. Can Tom Brady pull if off in 2020 and return Tampa Bay to the postseason?
If you're a Bucs team looking for its first playoff berth in more than a decade, it has to help your confidence to have a quarterback like Tom Brady under center.
If you're a Bucs team looking for its first playoff berth in more than a decade, it has to help your confidence to have a quarterback like Tom Brady under center. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Dec. 19, 2020

TAMPA — Tom Brady likes to say the NFL season starts after Thanksgiving. It’s not that the games count any more than they did prior to the holiday, but there is a realization that you’re running out of them.

The best teams ― and the best quarterbacks ― play their best football in December and January. No player knows how to elevate his teammates in crunch time better than Brady with his play, precision and passion.

“I don’t think there’s a human being out there who has been through more of these situations than Tom, right?” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “Any of them you can imagine ... he’s probably been through it a lot, so he helps. It helps to have him, to have a guy that has the awareness, the understanding of what it takes to play this position week in and week out, what it takes to play this position in December ― especially from a leadership standpoint ― and what you need to do to get your guys playing at a high level all of the time. He’s exceptional at that.”

So with that in mind, despite the Bucs’ struggles at the start of games, there’s plenty of reason to believe Tampa Bay (8-5) has time to get hot in the coldest months of the season and make a run to the playoffs.

Related: LA. Miami. New Orleans. Tampa? How the Super Bowl helped a city grow

Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay, the Bucs’ general manager during their run to the NFC championship game against the Rams in 1999 and the Super Bowl 37 win in 2002, noted that right now is when championship teams find another gear to pull away from the pack.

“If you look at our Super Bowl year and our ’99 year versus some of the other years, in the other playoff years, we were good but we didn’t get better at the end of the year,” McKay said. “In ’99 and the Super Bowl year, we got better. It can happen in a week. It’s just got to happen.”

That roll has already begun for some of the teams the Bucs have lost to in the past month — the Saints, Rams and Chiefs. They’re also probably better than the Bucs.

For now.

If the Bucs can lock in fundamentally and excel in situational football — third-down, red zone offense and defense, special teams — the NFC is wide open. And if a team is ever going to go on the road as a wildcard and reach the Super Bowl, this may be the year because home-field advantage has been negated by limited capacity in stadiums due to COVID-19.

Is there a succession plan?

Bruce Arians says he feels healthy and that’s great news for the 68-year-old coach, especially during the pandemic. He says his decision to delegate game planning to Leftwich has relieved a lot of stress.

The only time Arians looks spent is following games when he has been on his feet for three hours arguing with officials.

It would be hard to imagine Arians not wanting to return for 2021, perhaps barring a Super Bowl win. He knows how much better Brady and the Bucs could be with a full offseason and training camp.

But at some point, you would think Arians may want to hand he reins of the team over to one of his top assistants, either Todd Bowles or Leftwich.

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Both likely will get consideration for a head coaching job in 2021. But based on the job he’s done with the defense, Bowles may be harder to hold onto.

Related: Raheem Morris has finally grown into the job of NFL head coach

Sure, he had only one winning season in four with the Jets (and was 3-2 as the interim coach of the Dolphins). A 26-67 record is not a resume booster. But the Jets are a dysfunctional organization that gave him little to work with.

The Lions, Falcons, Jets and Texans have openings now. The Chargers, Jaguars and Bears may be shopping for a new head coach soon.

If Arians only wanted to coach another year or two, would the Bucs name one of their assistants as the head coach in waiting? It’s never been specifically stated, but a lot of folks in the NFL believe that’s what Josh McDaniels is to Bill Belichick and the Patriots.

Of course, NFL teams have been hiring head coaches with offensive backgrounds. But which teams may have an interest in Bowles? How about the Falcons or Texans?

Running back woes

Credit Bucs general manager Jason Licht for having the foresight to stock up on veteran running backs. With Ronald Jones on the COVID-19 list, Leonard Fournette steps in Sunday. He hasn’t played well this season and sulked a bit. But this is his chance at Atlanta. Look for rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn to get some meaningful snaps as well.