TAMPA — The countdown began in training camp 168 days and 167 tweaked hamstrings ago. It survived 17 games, at least three fake vaccination cards and one misplaced diva.
Yet, with an hour remaining in the regular season, the coming fate of the 2021 Buccaneers remained undecided.
Tampa Bay was in the process of putting away the woeful Panthers 41-17 at Raymond James Stadium early Sunday evening, but their postseason fortune was playing out in an overtime game between the 49ers and Rams on the other side of the country. A San Francisco victory would ease Tampa Bay’s postseason trek and make a return trip to the Super Bowl seem suddenly plausible.
The game was deemed so crucial that coach Bruce Arians made sure there would be no updated scores from Los Angeles on RayJay’s big screens, lest his players get disheartened by any bad news.
Yet the coach couldn’t help but monitor the game on his own headset, and pass on updates to quarterback Tom Brady at opportune moments. It was around 6:40 p.m. when Arians walked to Brady’s familiar spot on the bench and whispered that the 49ers were rallying in the second half.
The unflappable Brady responded with the look of a man who had just been goosed.
“I told him that it was tied,” Arians recalled later. “We needed one more score and he wanted to stay in the game.”
On a third and 4, Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford hits Cooper Kupp in the corner of the end zone to put Los Angeles up 24-17 with 2:29 remaining in the fourth quarter.
There is a reason Super Bowl champions rarely repeat in today’s NFL. Being good is not enough. In most years, a team needs to be lucky, as well. The Bucs, for instance, had an exceptionally healthy team and a boatload of fortune in last year’s postseason.
And, for long stretches of 2021, it seemed as if the football gods were making the Bucs pay for 2020′s windfall. Rob Gronkowski got hurt. So did an entire roster of defensive backs. Antonio Brown missed time due to an ankle injury and then went missing altogether.
Chris Godwin was lost for the season, Leonard Fournette strained a hamstring, Ronald Jones twisted an ankle, Jason Pierre-Paul has been nursing a bum shoulder, Lavonte David went down with a foot injury and Shaq Barrett has been sidelined with a knee problem.
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And yet, somehow, the Bucs had a better winning percentage and outscored teams by a slightly higher margin than when they won the Super Bowl last season.
“We have one of the best rosters every assembled,” receiver Mike Evans said. “We were unfortunate this year with injuries, but guys have been stepping up and making plays.”
Brady hits Evans streaking down the left sideline for a 20-yard touchdown to put the Bucs up 31-17 and set Tampa Bay records for touchdown passes (43) and receptions (14) in a season.
Playing at home is always advantageous, but especially the way this postseason was shaping up. If the Rams were the No. 2 seed and the Bucs were No. 3 — which is how the day began — there was a real possibility Tampa Bay would have been stuck going to Los Angeles and Green Bay on back-to-back weekends.
Take away last season’s magical run through Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay and the Bucs are 1-6 in road games in the postseason in franchise history.
With 26 seconds remaining on the clock, San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo hit Jauan Jennings on a 14-yard pass to send the game to overtime.
A 7-1 finish to the season gives the appearance of a team on a roll, but the truth is the Bucs have played mostly cupcakes in the past two months.
The Eagles might not be a scary opponent in the first round, but Tampa Bay’s defense is going to need to get better in a hurry with teams like Dallas and Green Bay potentially looming in the distance. And the offense cannot afford the slow starts that have plagued them in recent weeks.
“The first three possessions were just awful, awful crap,” Gronkowski said. “We can’t let that happen from here on out.”
Blaine Gabbert takes a knee in a victory formation to finish off Tampa Bay’s first 13-win regular season in franchise history.
“Thirteen wins and it hasn’t been easy,” Arians said. “We had a lot of guys down all season.”
As most fans head to the exits, several thousand stick around Raymond James to watch the end of the 49ers-Rams game that is now playing on the giant video screens at each end of the stadium. A handful of players linger on the field to watch, but Brady starts heading to locker room seconds before 49ers kicker Robbie Gould lines up for a 24-yard field goal.
“I’m not worried about two games from now,” Brady said. “I’m worried about one game from now, which is the Eagles.”
Stafford’s deep sideline pass is intercepted by Ambry Thomas to clinch the victory for San Francisco as fans around the pirate ship erupt in applause.
Take away last year’s Super Bowl when tickets were limited and nearly impossible for local fans to get, the Bucs now have their first home playoff game in 14 years next Sunday at 1 p.m. And if they win against the Eagles, they’re guaranteed a second game at home against the Cowboys, Cardinals or Rams.
Not bad for a team that stumbled at midseason, led the league in MRIs and spent the last week dealing with Brown’s histrionics, podcasts, paramours, and lawyers.
“That’s football,” Gronkowski said.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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