TAMPA — Fittingly, the extended journey was followed by an extended break. After a mostly thorough triumph against the Seahawks in a highly festive atmosphere in Germany, the Bucs got a badly needed bye week.
The lone glitch: Momentum, which had eluded them for more than a month, finally had been seized. Would it be squandered with extended down time? In the immediate wake of that win — the Bucs’ second in a row after a three-game skid — coach Todd Bowles conveyed mild regret that his resurgent team couldn’t play again the following week.
Even some players wanted to keep going, until thinking better of it.
“I did … but that flight back from Germany, I was like, ‘Yeah, we need a break,’ " cornerback Jamel Dean said. “What was it, nine hours there and 10 hours back? It was time for a break.”
Now, as the Bucs prepare for their first game in 14 days, against the Browns on Sunday, the prevalent question around this .500 team involves whether the layoff will lead to a dropoff. In the previous five years, NFL teams are a collective 94-81-1 following a bye week (including teams that get a first-round playoff bye).
“After having a week off, get your focus back, get used to hitting again, understand what our mission is going forward,” Bowles said.
The mission includes little margin for error. The Bucs (5-5) are a half-game up on the Falcons (5-6) in the NFC South, though they possess the tiebreak edge with a Week Five win against Atlanta.
On tap after Cleveland: a Monday night home game against the Saints (unbeaten at Raymond James Stadium the last four seasons), back-to-back games against playoff contenders (Bengals, 49ers), a Christmas Day contest in Arizona, and consecutive division games (versus the Panthers, at Falcons) to end the regular season.
“I think the hard part about football season is it’s a marathon, and everyone’s got to buckle down and give everything they’ve got,” Tom Brady said this week.
“I think this time of the year, some teams get worse and stop believing and lose hope, and other teams do the opposite. And I think that’s where you really see — whether it’s a championship boxing match, whether it’s football season, whether it’s the middle of the third quarter of a game — that’s when you begin to separate yourself.
“We’ve got to play well.”
If the Bucs can’t carry the momentum onto domestic soil, they won’t have injuries to blame. Receiver Russell Gage (hamstring) and Luke Goedeke (foot), both of whom have been sidelined for an extended period, are the only two definitely out for Sunday, Bowles said.
Nose tackle Vita Vea (foot) and tailback Leonard Fournette (hip) practiced Friday and could play in Cleveland. Fournette (14 carries, 57 yards, one touchdown) and rookie Rachaad White (22 carries, 105 yards) teamed to help deliver the Bucs’ best rushing effort of the season (161 yards) against the Seahawks.
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Moreover, Bowles indicated his team came back crisp from the layoff.
“Focus was good, great week of practice,” he said Friday. “Communication was outstanding. We’ve just got to carry it to the game on Sunday.”
Fortunately for the Bucs, they’ll arrive in Cleveland with one of the NFL’s masters at maintaining an edge after a layoff.
As a starter, Brady is 15-5 in his career following a regular-season bye.
“As good as that (Germany game) was, it was one game and you’ve got to build on it,” he said. “You’ve got to put together a bunch of those games. So we’ve just got to keep the pressure on — practice hard, prepare hard and ultimately when you go out there, play your ass off and see what we can make of it.
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
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