TAMPA — Gritty is good. Talented is better.
That may be an oversimplification, but it’s probably an accurate depiction of what the Bucs are up against versus Dallas in Monday night’s first-round playoff game.
Toughness is important. Size, speed, strength and skill are all preferable.
That, too, is an overly broad brush, but it’s an easy way to explain the challenge that Tampa Bay is facing heading into this postseason.
The standings, statistics and naked eye all suggest the Bucs are not among the wealthiest teams when it comes to sheer ability in the 2022 season.
They can’t run the ball and they’re not very efficient passing. They don’t force turnovers and they have lost their best pass rusher. They are older than everybody else, struggle in the red zone and can’t kick long field goals.
So how have they gotten here? What, precisely, do the Bucs do well?
Well, they have gotten pretty adept at winning white-knuckle games.
They keep the score close, avoid turnovers and depend on Tom Brady to be Tom Brady when the fourth quarter rolls around. For a team that only won eight games, the Bucs were tied for second in the league with five game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.
When asked this week how Dallas and Tampa Bay had changed from the season’s first week, head coach Todd Bowles was understandably vague. That’s because, in a lot of measurable ways, they have gone backward since September.
“From our standpoint,” he said, “I think we’re mentally tougher.”
That sounds nice, but what does it mean? Can mentally tough offensive linemen slow down pass rushers such as Dallas sack master Micah Parsons? Can mentally tough linebackers handle twin running threats such as Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard? Can a mentally tough fourth quarter overcome a poor first quarter, a mediocre second quarter and a listless third quarter?
“Being mentally tough means being able to handle adversity,” said Bucs receiver Chris Godwin. “Things don’t always go smooth during a game. There are a lot of ups and downs. Guys make plays, guys mess up. The teams that win are the teams that can deal with that adversity, that understand it’s a long game and that are willing to fight until the very end.”
Again, that sounds nice but is it reality? Would you prefer the touchy-feely comfort of a mentally tough team, or the quantifiable advantages of a more talented roster?
The Cowboys were third in the NFL in scoring and sixth in points allowed. The Bucs were 25th and 13th. That suggests a mismatch of uncomfortable proportions.
And yet four of the other five playoff games went into the opening round with a wider point spread. The Bucs were only 2.5-point underdogs by week’s end.
“I just think we had a lot of issues this year, we call it Bucs vs. Bucs. You know, those games where we beat ourselves,” said cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting. “It could be turning the ball over too much, it could be blown coverages. Being mentally tough means being tough enough to know your role, knowing what it takes to win 1-on-1, knowing how to play smart, fast, efficient, physical football.”
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Unlike the previous two seasons, the Bucs do not come into this postseason with much buzz or swagger. In 2020, the Bucs went 5-2 down the stretch on the way to winning the Super Bowl. In 2021, they were 6-1 and rolled over Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs.
This year? They limped home at 3-4. And the three teams they beat finished 7-10, 7-10 and 4-13. That sounds more blessed than tough.
Considering the downturn in talent on both sides of the line, the mistakes of the past will be harder to overcome for Tampa Bay in these playoffs. The margin for error is miniscule, at best. It might even be non-existent if the Cowboys play to their potential.
But, as Hollywood-ish as it sounds, there is something to be said for a team that knows how to win. Do you want to bet against Brady? Against Godwin and Mike Evans? Against Vita Vea and Lavonte David?
Tampa Bay is fourth in the NFL in regular-season victories since 2020. They are tied for first in postseason victories.
They’re not a perfect team. These days, they are not even a great team. For all the talk of the playoffs being a new season and every team starting off with a clean slate, today’s Bucs are not nearly good enough to run the table and win the Super Bowl.
But they still have got enough to win against any given team in the right circumstances.
“You don’t like it to come down to those last minutes, but you can see the fight we have in this team,” said offensive lineman Nick Leverett. “Our guys don’t quit just because things aren’t going our way.
“We’ve got a lot of highly paid guys in this room, and they could easily say, ‘Oh well, whatever,’ when things aren’t going well. But you don’t see that around here. Everyone in here cares. Everyone in here is going to work hard and do whatever it takes to stay alive in the playoffs.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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