TAMPA — Say this about your 2020 Buccaneers:
They are not perfect, but they are not afraid.
They do not have much of a past, but they still have a future.
They are not yet in the Super Bowl, but they aren’t far away.
For all the expectations and noise that came along with the Tom Brady signing, the Bucs now find themselves in the NFL’s final four with a chance to accomplish something pretty rare. Should they beat Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, the Bucs would become just the fifth team in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl by winning three consecutive road games in the playoffs.
Big deal, right? I mean, most stadiums have resembled ghost towns during COVID-19, so how difficult can road games be? There’s some truth to that, but playing on the road is not just about noise level or fan ferocity.
It’s not a fluke that the other three road teams lost last weekend. There are inherent hassles with airplanes, hotels and unfamiliar surroundings. And, the most obvious point, the team that earns homefield advantage usually has had the more impressive regular season.
It may take loads of talent to win road games this deep into the postseason, but it also takes a certain attitude to walk into another team’s house and expect to come out the back door with daylight still shining on your season.
“It’s having the mindset and understanding that you control your own destiny from the standpoint of how we got into the playoffs and how we finished,” defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “Being the fifth seed, knowing we needed to get on the road and take care of business against Washington and then see where the chips fell.”
More than anything, this is about the Bucs learning how to be closers. Facing adversity and figuring out how to survive.
You may recall, halfway through the season the Bucs were the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They were 6-2 with a half-game lead on the Saints in the NFC South before dropping three of their next four.
They were never in real danger of falling out of the playoff picture, but they were flirting with irrelevance. The Bucs looked to be a team good enough to contend, but not quite ready to take on the NFL’s upper crust. Or so it seemed from the outside.
Turns out, the Bucs were still coming into their own. Brady needed time to click with all his offensive weapons, and a young secondary needed time to grow and adjust.
Tampa Bay had a bye week unusually late in the season — a byproduct of pandemic scheduling — and emerged a more confident team. Since mid-December the Bucs have run off six consecutive victories. They also have won seven consecutive road games, dating to late October.
There was a chance all of that winning in December had more to do with weaker opponents, but coach Bruce Arians said the team’s faith in its direction was growing even before they upset the Saints in New Orleans.
“It boosts the confidence for sure, but we went (to New Orleans) expecting to win,” Arians said. “It was not a shock to us that we won. We ‘re such a different team than when we played back in November.”
Being on a roll does not mean the Bucs are guaranteed of anything this Sunday. History — and the early Las Vegas odds — say the Bucs will be underdogs in Green Bay. During the Super Bowl era, there have been 17 wild-card teams that have won their first two games away from home but only four followed through by winning the conference championship on the road.
One of those teams was the 2005 Steelers, who went to Denver and beat the Broncos in the AFC title game before winning the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. The receivers coach on that team was a guy named Bruce Arians.
“We have a mindset that it doesn’t matter where we play, we’re going to play football when we have to,” said tight end Cam Brate.
“I think a lot of that has to do with leadership, and it starts with BA. His mindset, his mentality, that we’re going to fight. That’s who we are is a group of fighters. It starts with him and trickles down from there.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
Of the 108 teams to have reached the Super Bowl, only 10 were wild-card teams. And only four of those wild cards pulled it off while having to win three consecutive road games to get out of the conference. If the Bucs beat Green Bay on Sunday, they would be the fifth.
2010: Green Bay won at Philadelphia, at Chicago, at Atlanta. Beat Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.
2007: New York Giants won at Tampa Bay, at Dallas, at Green Bay. Beat New England in Super Bowl.
2005: Pittsburgh won at Cincinnati, at Indianapolis, at Denver. Beat Seattle in Super Bowl.
1985: New England won at New York Jets, at Los Angeles Raiders, at Miami. Lost to Chicago in Super Bowl.