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Bucs’ playoff victory a long time coming, and a long way from good enough

John Romano | Tampa Bay turned in a workmanlike performance against Washington, but will need much more against New Orleans.
Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) celebrates his first-quarter interception against Washington at FedEx Field on Saturday.
Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) celebrates his first-quarter interception against Washington at FedEx Field on Saturday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 10, 2021|Updated Jan. 10, 2021

What a team. What a quarterback. What a season.

The Bucs have given us a steady supply of mirth and memories in 2020-21. There have been records, comebacks, highlights and, on Saturday night, the franchise’s first postseason victory in nearly 18 years. Congratulations fellas, you deserve a bow.

Yeah, it was fun while it lasted.

Oh, don’t look at me that way. You know what I’m talking about, and I’m pretty sure the Bucs do, too.

As much as Tampa Bay deserved, and should celebrate, that 31-23 victory against Washington in the first round of the playoffs, I can’t imagine fans are planning to set up sleeping bags outside of Raymond James Stadium to pray for Super Bowl 55 tickets to go on sale today.

Too critical? Too bad.

This is what the Bucs wanted. This is what they have been aiming for. Signing Tom Brady raised the bar as high as it could possibly go, and they didn’t look too graceful leaping over it against Washington. If they had been facing any other NFC playoff team, I’m not sure that effort would have been enough.

We’ve seen plenty in recent weeks to convince us that Tampa Bay is capable of beating any team in the NFL when the offense is clicking, and the secondary isn’t blowing assignments.

But on Saturday night, did the Bucs really look like a team ready to take down the Saints next week?

“Well, we’ll see when we play next week,” coach Bruce Arians said. “No, this performance defensively wouldn’t be (enough). Offensively it would be.”

Maybe the Bucs will catch a break. Maybe the Bears will somehow upset New Orleans today, and Tampa Bay will end up with a home game against the Rams in the next round.

But that’s not likely, and that means the Bucs are in need of upping their standards in a hurry.

That’s not criticism, it’s reality. There have been only two games all season that Tampa Bay did not have a decent shot at winning, and both of those games were against the Saints.

To put it another way: The Bucs outscored the rest of the league 466-283, but lost two games to New Orleans by a combined 72-26.

You don’t often get a chance for postseason revenge after losing to an opponent twice in the regular season. In the past 20 years, eight teams have had the opportunity and only two — the 2007 Giants and 2004 Vikings — managed to pull it off.

“You’d love to play great every game,” Brady said. “I think it’s good to win and advance. If we don’t play well next week, we’re not going to be happy. I’m glad we won, glad we have another week of work and we’re going to try to do a much better job this week.”

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To be fair, the Bucs were solid and workmanlike on Saturday night. For the most part, they avoided critical mistakes. Brady and Mike Evans had a handful of moments bordering on sensational, and Leonard Fournette had his best week in a Bucs uniform.

But Washington was a 7-9 team with quarterback Taylor Heinicke making his first start of the season and the second of his career at age 27, and those guys still had the Bucs nervous at the two-minute warning.

“I don’t think it was the best our defense has played,” Arians said. “It was terrible up until the last eight minutes.”

Will that work against Drew Brees? No. Will that be enough against Alvin Kamara? No. Will that send the Bucs into the offseason feeling like 2020 was everything it was supposed to be? Probably not.

That doesn’t mean Tampa Bay can’t win against the Saints. Or, for that matter, against the Rams who also beat the Bucs this season.

What it means is that the Bucs need to be better. They can’t have as many dropped passes as they had Saturday night. They can’t have as many missed tackles. They can’t give receivers wide-open lanes to run down the field.

We’ve seen this team at its best against opponents such as Green Bay and Atlanta and Detroit. Even in losses to the Chiefs and the Rams, the Bucs showed signs of being just a play or two away from outstanding.

Saturday night was not one of those games. Neither were the two previous meetings with the Saints.

The Bucs have a week to get it right, or an entire offseason to figure out what was wrong.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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