TAMPA — For the better part of five decades, December was a psychiatrist’s nightmare in Tampa Bay.
No matter what year the calendar was showing, Bucs fans seemed to vacillate between panic and dread. In the lost years, the final month of the NFL season was four long weeks of gritted teeth and resignation. In the better years, it was often a week-to-week dose of anxiety and tiebreaker formulas.
It was never like … this.
A four-game lead in the NFC South with five games remaining? A legitimate path forward to homefield advantage? A December when there is nothing to do but plan the parties and taunt the Saints?
Is this what it’s like to be NFL nobility?
Naturally, the Bucs have already won two Super Bowls. We’ve had flyover celebrations at Raymond James Stadium and Lombardi Trophy tosses on the Hillsborough River. But, even in those seasons, the Bucs never had a December like this.
In 2002, Tampa Bay had a two-game lead in the NFC South with five games to play. The Bucs stumbled home at 3-2 and the only thing that saved them was the Falcons and Saints faltering, too.
Last season, the Bucs were still chasing the Saints when December rolled around, and were forced to take a circuitous wild-card route through Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay in the playoffs.
Forty-five years of football and never once were the Bucs the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Is this the year?
“Yeah, we don’t really talk about it,” coach Bruce Arians said Monday. “You start thinking about January, you’re going to get your ass beat and you’ll be playing on the road for sure.”
That’s exactly the way a coach is supposed to talk, but the truth is the Bucs are in an excellent position to come away with the best record in the conference.
Right now, they trail the Cardinals (by one game) and the Packers (by tiebreaker) in the NFC, but the schedules seem to favor Tampa Bay.
The Bucs have one game remaining against a team — the Bills this Sunday — that’s currently in the playoff picture. And that game is at home. The Cardinals have two playoff teams remaining (Rams and at the Cowboys), and the Packers have one (Ravens) but it’s on the road.
Meanwhile, the Bucs should clinch the division sometime in the next two weeks. They could do it with a victory on Sunday — and a little help with some other results — or just two more wins.
All of which probably explains why betting websites, such as vegasinsider.com and fanduel.com, both have the Bucs as the favorites to win the NFC Championship.
Now, this also puts the Bucs in a bit of philosophical quandary. When your entire season rests on the shoulders of 44-year-old quarterback Tom Brady, how much do you play him in December? How about tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose medical charts could fill a filing cabinet? Or 34-year-old defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh? Or Lavonte David, Mike Evans, Devin White and Vita Vea?
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When receiver Chris Godwin was on his back in apparent pain in the fourth quarter against the Falcons on Sunday, did your heart skip a beat?
Arians says, for the most part, he has no plans to take his veterans out of the lineup. He’ll limit their contact and work from Wednesday to Friday, but said there is still too much on the line on Sundays.
“Game snaps? No. More practice snaps,” Arians said. “Now if we get a lead (in a game), that’s different. Like we’ve gotten Tom and some guys out in the fourth quarter so far. But, no, we try to limit it all out here (at practice) so that they can go full speed on Sundays.”
The Bucs had to live on a virtual week-to-week basis last season and didn’t clinch a playoff berth until after Christmas. That lesson should bode well as they chase the No. 1 seed, even if their predicament isn’t as dire as 2020.
“It’s just taking care of every day’s business,” Arians said. “The only thing we can do is take care of Wednesday’s practice and Wednesday’s meetings. One day at a time. We’ll add them all up at the end. Everybody knows how important that is. We’re sitting at the No. 3 seed right now and each win, each game really matters.
“And it’s fun.”
Well, yeah it kinda is, now that he mentions it.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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