How will Bucs handle playoff pressure as defending Super Bowl champions?

A year ago, most of the players on Tampa Bay’s roster had never experienced the postseason. That’s changed. So have expectations.
Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) and quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrate Evans’ touchdown reception during Sunday's victory over the Panthers at Raymond James Stadium. Though Brady has considerably more playoff experience, both can now call themselves Super Bowl champions.
Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) and quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrate Evans’ touchdown reception during Sunday's victory over the Panthers at Raymond James Stadium. Though Brady has considerably more playoff experience, both can now call themselves Super Bowl champions. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 13, 2022|Updated Jan. 13, 2022

TAMPA — It’s playoff time, which means every NFL team still participating has seen its record put through the washing machine and come out a spotless 0-0.

But for some, the postseason might feel like being caught in the spin cycle.

A year ago, with some spectacular exceptions, such as Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, the Bucs had little to no playoff experience.

Now they are defending Super Bowl champions, and the butterflies they feel have much smaller wings.

“Yeah, it’s totally different and they know how to raise the level,” coach Bruce Arians said as his team began preparation for Sunday’s NFC wild-card game against the Eagles at Raymond James Stadium.

“I’m anxious to see us on the practice field this week. Last year, we almost practiced too hard because they were so excited. You raise your level of everything — preparation, practice, everything — for the playoffs.”

What you don’t want to raise, however, is your heartbeat before it’s time.

That’s why at Wednesday’s team meeting, Arians made sure his club realized the franchise-record 13 regular-season wins, the No. 2 seed in the conference and all that comes with it means zilch if they don’t dial in for Sunday’s game.

“As soon as everybody walked in the building today, 2021 is over,” Arians said he told his team. “This is a whole new season. Nothing matters except winning this week, and everybody is in tune with that. You can feel it in the building.”

While it clearly didn’t block their path to winning Super Bowl 55 last season, the Bucs’ inexperience was something they had to overcome. Having been through the process once can only help this time around, especially when it comes to settling the emotions, center Ryan Jensen said.

“I think from last year to this year, at least from what I feel, everybody is a lot calmer and not as emotionally charged as we were last year, which I think is a good thing,” Jensen said. “Obviously, coming into the game and getting our emotions up and getting ready to go is going to be huge.”

A year ago, the Bucs’ wild-card game at Washington turned out to be the closest of their three playoff games before reaching the Super Bowl.

Washington won the East Division at 7-9 and used surprise starter Taylor Heinicke at quarterback for the injured Alex Smith. Heinicke gave the Bucs fits, passing for 306 yards and a touchdown while running for another score. The Bucs survived and advanced with a 31-23 win at FedEx Field.

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Defensive lineman William Gholston, a fourth-round pick out of Michigan State in 2013, is second only to linebacker Lavonte David in tenure among players who have spent their entire career with the Bucs.

“The mindset doesn’t change,” Gholston said. “The only difference is we’ve got fans in the stands (compared to the pandemic-altered 2020 season). That’s a really good thing to be able to come home and have this home game, because we know the Buc nation is going to have it rocking. That’s really the biggest difference for me.”

Due to limited capacity during the pandemic, Gronkowski didn’t get to experience a full Raymond James Stadium until this season. Even Super Bowl 55 against the Chiefs at RJS was capped at around 25,000 socially distanced fans.

“It was a great environment this year, especially since I was kind of having my first experience this year of having a full stadium at Raymond James,” Gronkowski said. “The Krewe, they were awesome, the fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They were amazing this year, they supported us like no other, and every single home game it felt great to be out there. The energy levels were high, from the beginning of the game to the end of the game.”

For receiver Mike Evans, drafted by the Bucs in the 2014 first round out of Texas A&M, the postseason was something that occurred for other teams the first six years of his NFL career. What he learned a year ago is that while stakes are higher in the playoffs, the game is the same one he has played all season.

“It’s the exact same,” Evans said. “I guess you can feel it a little bit. I mean, it’s win or go home. I guess guys play a little bit harder, but it’s the same guys. It’s an NFL game at the end of the day.”

Sunday’s opponent, the Eagles, beat Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl 52 at Minneapolis to end the 2017 season. They have 10 players on the current roster remaining from that championship team, though others were part of Philadelphia’s postseason runs in 2018 and ‘19.

“I know (the Bucs) are defending Super Bowl champs and a lot of the guys have played major roles in that last year,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said “But we’ve got guys left over from the Super Bowl team. We’ve got guys that played in the AFC Championship Game in (cornerback) Steve Nelson. Guys that have played in the NFC Championship Game in (safety) Anthony Harris.

“We have a bunch of guys that have played in the national championship game on college’s biggest stage at Alabama and Clemson. We’ve got a lot of experience, too. I know it’s not exactly the same, but we’ve got a lot of guys that have played in big games as well.”

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