TAMPA — They were not going to beat the Eagles.
Not on Monday night, not on a Sony PlayStation, not if Tom Brady was in the huddle.
The world seemed pretty sure of that long before the coin flip, which is how the Bucs ended up as a five-point underdog even when they were undefeated and playing at home. This is not their time, and the NFC championship is not their destiny.
Instead, this game was a chance for the Bucs to take measure of themselves. To assess the distance between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow.
Better gas up the bus, because that’s a mighty long road ahead.
It wasn’t just that the Eagles spanked the Bucs 25-11 on Monday night, it’s that there was no real sign of hope. There was no spark on offense and little malice on defense. In the end, there was not one thing that made you think it’s prudent to clear your calendar in January.
Oh, the Bucs kept it close for 25 minutes or so, but that was only because they didn’t make any egregious errors. The Eagles were dominant in every way except the scoreboard.
“You’ve got to make plays,” head coach Todd Bowles said. “Nobody is going to feel sorry for us.”
The Bucs won their first two games of the season because they played mostly error-free football. No turnovers, few costly penalties. The offense wasn’t explosive, but it converted on third down and kept the opposition off the field. The defense created takeaways and did a decent job in the red zone.
It seemed like a formula for the rest of the season, but on Monday night there was something missing:
A crappy opponent.
Turns out, Minnesota and Chicago deserve a lot of credit for Tampa Bay’s 2-0 start. The Vikings and Bears are a combined 0-6 which, in retrospect, seems to have played an oversized role in the outcome of those first two games.
“There was nothing (the Eagles) did that was out of the ordinary,” said safety Ryan Neal. “We knew what they were going to do. They’re a well-coached team, and they’re going to run what they run. We knew that, but we didn’t take advantage. We didn’t play smashmouth football, and that’s why we have to own it.
“The beautiful thing is we’ve played three games and we’re 2-1, so we’re going to learn from this and move on.”
Ultimately, what this game taught us is the Bucs have no margin for error. They’re not going to outmuscle good teams. They’re not faster than good teams. They’re not more explosive than good teams.
Three weeks’ worth of football has demonstrated that Tampa Bay’s roster has enough talent to beat a lot of teams in the NFL, but not if they make too many mistakes. Not if the pocket breaks down around Baker Mayfield and he starts forcing passes. Not if the offensive line gets blown backward at the goal line and Rachaad White is stopped in the end zone for a safety. Not if blitzing defensive backs fail to get opposing quarterbacks before they get the ball off.
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For the record, Philadelphia outgained Tampa Bay 472-174 yards. That’s not the kind of stat you see from a team with hopes of becoming a bully.
“They ran the ball down our throats,” said linebacker Lavonte David. “We have to own that. We have to learn from that, fix it, and get better.”
The good news is there are not too many teams on the schedule with the kind of talent Philadelphia brought to Raymond James Stadium. The San Francisco game in mid-November has a chance to be this ugly but, otherwise, the Bucs should have a fighting chance against the rest of their opponents.
They just need to forge a better identity. They cannot simply be a team that protects the ball and hopes to outlast everyone else. They need to run the ball better. They need to get healthier in the secondary. And they need to find a way to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers.
“We are damn good when we do our job,” Mayfield said. “Just need to take advantage of it.”
This loss is not a calamity. It wasn’t even unexpected. But it can’t be ignored, either.
This is reality. You’re not undefeated, and you’re not going to the Super Bowl.
If your offensive line can’t block any better, you’re not even going to be very good.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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