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Bucs failed to score and, even worse, failed to inspire much confidence

John Romano | In a four-hour span Sunday night, the balance of power in the NFC shifted from Tampa Bay to Green Bay.
The usual chemistry between Bucs tight end Rob Gronkowski, above, and Tom Brady was missing Sunday against the Saints.
The usual chemistry between Bucs tight end Rob Gronkowski, above, and Tom Brady was missing Sunday against the Saints. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 20, 2021|Updated Dec. 20, 2021

Get me rewrite. Get me an eraser. Get me a hole to crawl into.

A week ago, I looked at the Bucs and saw a team that was on its way back to the Super Bowl. After Sunday night’s 9-0 loss to the Saints, I see a team on its way back to 2017.

Oh, go ahead and blame it on the injuries.

No Chris Godwin, Mike Evans or Leonard Fournette. No Jamel Dean, Richard Sherman or Antoine Winfield. For that matter, no Giovani Bernard, Breshad Perriman or Antonio Brown.

And, while you’re at it, you could point out there was no Mike Alstott, Keyshawn Johnson or Ronde Barber either.

It doesn’t matter who was missing from the lineup Sunday night, the bottom line is the Bucs had a home game against a team with a losing record, a backup quarterback and a patchwork offensive line. And they got their butts handed to them on national television in front of God and Green Bay.

No, this is not going to stop the Bucs from eventually winning the NFC South, but it probably will keep them from claiming the No. 1 seed in the conference. And that likely means the Super Bowl will again require a trip to Green Bay in late January.

As if that isn’t bad enough, the Bucs could be hobbling into the playoffs on strained hamstrings and twisted knees. They may have been a longshot wild card last year, but at least the Bucs went into the postseason healthy and on a roll.

Now, they’ll know they potentially blew a chance for a first-round bye and homefield advantage. And, if a couple of those injuries are serious, there’s no telling how adversely affected the offense will be.

Between the Packers beating the Ravens 31-30 on a defensive stop of a two-point conversion, and Tom Brady fumbling away a critical third-quarter drive, the balance of power in the NFC seemed to shift in a four-hour span Sunday night.

Is that an overreaction?

Possibly. The Bucs will still be favored in the next three weeks, and could still have the conference’s No. 2 seed. They’ll still have Tom Brady at quarterback and their defense is trending in the right direction.

But there were concerns on Sunday night that went beyond the injuries. The offensive line had its worst game of the season protecting Brady, and tight end Rob Gronkowski looked completely out of sorts.

And the only thing more clear than the lack of faith in tight end O.J. Howard is the lack of faith in any running back other than Fournette to catch a pass.

The whole world has marveled at Brady’s ability to play at an elite level at age 44, but it’s also clear he is a conductor and not a solo artist. He struggles when the protection breaks down, and the game plan goes in the toilet when he does not have his normal targets in the short, ball-control passing game.

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How bad was Sunday night for the Bucs quarterback? Including the postseason, it was only the third shutout in Brady’s 358 career starts and his first since 2006.

Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) is upended by Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport (92) during the second quarter Sunday.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) is upended by Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport (92) during the second quarter Sunday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

And, again, we’re not talking about an opponent that is terrorizing the NFL. Take away the two victories against Tampa Bay, and the Saints are 5-7 this season. The defense has some Pro Bowl quality players but the fact is New Orleans was not in the top 10 in points allowed coming into the game.

“I don’t think we were much good at anything tonight. I wish it was just one thing; it was a lot of things,” Brady said. “We’ve got to do better in every facet of offensive football to score points.”

The good news is the Bucs have some time to get themselves straightened out. Their next three games are against losing teams, and they can readjust the playbook if any of the injuries are serious.

No matter how you feel about the moral implications, the return of Brown at receiver after serving a three-game suspension will give Brady a much-needed security blanket in the passing game.

So do you trust the team that was averaging 32 points a game through the season’s first 13 weeks, or the one that could not find the end zone with a GPS Sunday night?

Do you trust the team that was 5-0 in games decided by seven points or fewer this season, or the one that continually choked in the fourth quarter Sunday night?

Do you trust the team that overcame injury after injury in the season’s first three months, or the one that looked like it was picking substitutes out of the crowd on Sunday night?

A week ago, I knew which team I trusted.

Today, I’m not so sure.

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

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