ONE STEP CLOSER!
The 7-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers came off of their late bye week to face the 6-6 Minnesota Vikings for an NFC showdown with playoff implications at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. The Bucs pulled ahead early with a 17-6 halftime lead and never looked back. They got the 26-14 win and more importantly, improved their chances to make the postseason.
It wasn’t pretty by any stretch. The Bucs had their fair share of issues in the first half, but they tightened up and got things headed in the right direction. As usual, there was plenty of Good, Bad and Ugly about this game so here’s what I came up with for the Bucs win over the Vikings.
The Bail Out
The Buccaneers had a little luck on their side in this game. Or maybe it was just the Tampa Bay kicking curse trying to let us all know it was still around since Ryan Succop has been fighting it off all season. Vikings kicker Dan Bailey literally bailed the Bucs defense out throughout this game missing all three of his field goal attempts AND his only extra point attempt. That’s 10 points that he left on the field in a game where the Bucs won by 12 points. It may not have been enough to cover the spread on the scoreboard, but it could’ve effected the way the game played out at the end.
At one point in the second quarter, the Vikings had outgained the Bucs 188-98 in total offense. Then the Bucs cleaned up their act and outgained the Vikings 141-3 going into the third quarter. The Bucs normally impenetrable run defense didn’t have an answer for Dalvin Cook early on, giving up more than 75 yards to him in the first half alone. But they clamped down, like they have been in the second half of games this year, and Cook finished with 22 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown.
The Bucs defensive line may have sucked against the Vikings run game, but they wreaked havock in the passing game. They finished this game with six sacks from five different players and kept constant pressure on Kirk Cousins all day. It matched their season high and ties the most in a game since 2013. Shaq Barrett showed up big time with his second 2 sack game of the season, giving him eight for the year. Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, rookie Antoine Winfield Jr and Pat O’Connor all had one sack each. It was O’Connor’s first of his career and it gives Pierre-Paul 9.5 for the season, good enough for sixth in the league. It was Suh’s 4th and Winfield’s 3rd of the season. This game gives the Bucs 40 sacks for the season putting them among the NFL’s top teams in that category. They’re on pace for 50 sacks this season, which would be the second highest total in franchise history (55 sacks during the 2000 season). This is just the fifth time in team history that the Bucs have reached 40+ sacks.
The Bucs are also close to having two 10+ sack players in the same season in Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. That’s only happened twice in team history. Warren Sapp and Chidi Ohanatu did it in 1997 and then Sapp did it again with Marcus Jones in 2000. The Bucs didn’t have a single player with 10+ sacks from 2006-17 and now they could possibly have four in the last three years.
The Bucs offensive line has been pretty solid for most of the year, allowing the fourth fewest sacks (16) in the league. They allowed zero sacks and just 3 QB hits AND only gave up one tackle for loss in 49 offensive snaps against the Vikings. Rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs once again had an impressive game and is ProFootballFocus.com’s fourth highest rated rookie right tackle since 2006. It wasn’t just about the pass protection though. The Bucs also ran the ball 26 times for 107 yards and a 4.1 yards per carry average.
It’s Miller Time
After disappearing from the Bucs offense over the last 5 games (since the arrival of Antonio Brown) Scotty “Scooter“ Miller finally got another chance at making a big play and did not disappoint. His ONLY catch of the game was a perfectly placed 48 yard bomb into the endzone from Tom Brady for a touchdown. There’s no doubt that Antonio Brown is a better wide receiver than Miller. He’s one of the best to ever do it. That being said, Miller and Brady have had good chemistry from Week 1 and “Scooter” should be getting more opportunities even if it means Brown playing fewer snaps.
Antoine Winfield Jr has been in the Rookie Defensive Player of the Year conversation for most of this season. And for good reason. So far, Winfield has totaled 79 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 passes defensed, an interception and a forced fumble in 13 games. He had perhaps his best game of the season against the Vikings finishing with 12 tackles (including 10 solo), a sack and a forced fumble. Jason Licht has caught some flack over the years about his draft picks, but he’s had his share of home runs as well. Winfield appears to be one of them.
This game had the feel of an old school, Buc Ball game. Bend but don’t break and relentlessly getting after the quarterback on defense. Taking care of the football and balance on offense. For the first time this season, the Bucs ran the ball more times than they passed it. Their 23 pass attempts were the fewest for a Bucs team AND for Tom Brady since the 2015 season. They also had some success “pounding the rock” as Jon Gruden used to say finishing with 26 rushes for 107 yards, or 4.1 yards per carry. Ronald Jones had 18 carries for 80 yards and 4.4 yards per carry and LeSean McCoy had 4 carries for 32 yards and 8 yards per carry.
The Playoff Picture
With this win, the Bucs are now 8-5 and in full control of their playoff destiny. The win was nice, but the losses that happened on Sunday made it even better. The Saints lost to the Eagles, which leaves the Bucs a glimmer of hope for winning the division. The Bucs would have to win their last three games and the Saints would have to lose their last three games in order for that to happen. New Orleans has the Chiefs, Vikings and Panthers left. Doubtful that happens, especially since they’re expecting to get Drew Brees back in the next week or two. The Falcons and Lions also lost, which pretty much eliminated them from any chance at the wildcard. That’s good news for the Bucs, not only because it’s two less teams in the race, but it gives both of them a little less to play for over the next few weeks.
Believe it or not, Tampa Bay even has a small chance at winning the top playoff seed in the NFC but they need a ton of luck and a ton of help. Of course they would have to win their remaining three games, but they would also need the Saints to lose all three of their games AND the Packers, Seahawks and Rams would ALL have to lose two of their last three games. Not likely, but it could happen.
The Bucs are currently sitting in the 6th seed with a 92% chance of making the playoffs, according to New York Times NFL playoff simulator. A win in Atlanta next week raises that to a 98% chance and all but clinches a playoff berth. The Bucs can also finish as the 5th seed and win a first round matchup with the NFC East champ (Washington currently leads at 6-7) IF they win out AND the Seahawks lose to the Rams in Week 16. As I said before, the Buccaneers control their own playoff destiny at this point. Win, and they’re in the dance for the first time in 13 years.
I had hoped for a healthy, refreshed and refocused Buccaneers team to show up for this game coming off of their bye week. Instead, we got the same slow starting team we’ve seen all season. Tom Brady was off and the offense wasn’t clicking. The defense couldn’t get off the field and gave up yards and points early. I’ll blame it on “rust” from being off for a week, but Tampa Bay has had an issue with bad first quarters all year. Over the last 5 games, they’ve allowed the most first quarter points (52) of any team in the NFL AND they’ve scored the second fewest first quarter points (7) of any team in the NFL. Only the Eagles (6) have scored fewer.
I really wanted them to come out of this break and show us something different. Something that would give us a little more confidence going into the playoffs. Unfortunately, they didn’t. If this team can’t get off to better starts, then they won’t last long in the playoffs.
The Run Defense
The most surprising thing about this game for me was how much the Bucs normally stout defensive front struggled with the Vikings run game in the first half. Even though Minnesota has the 5th ranked rushing offense in the league, the Bucs are #1 against the run allowing just 80 yards per game and 3 yards per carry. Dalvin Cook had over 75 yards in the first half alone. The Vikings o-line was opening up HUGE holes and the Bucs were missing too many tackles, 14 of them according to Bruce Arians. Luckily, the defense tightened up in the second half and Cook only finished with 22 carries for 102 yards.
The Loose Ends
The Bucs secondary did a pretty good job limiting Vikings receivers Adam Thielen and rookie Justin Jefferson to a combined 7 catches for 78 yards and no touchdowns in this game. However, Minnesota’s tight ends did some damage. Tyler Conklin had 5 catches for 40 yards and Irv Smith Jr was their leading receiver with 4 catches for 63 yards and a touchdown. It was a combination of Devin White’s lack of coverage ability and the soft zone coverage that the Bucs play for some unknown reason.
I was going to give Ryan Succop a pass on his missed extra point following Rob Gronkowski’s touchdown in the third quarter, but I don’t think I will. He’s been so solid all season hitting 24 of 26 field goals and now 38 of 41 extra points, so a miss is unusual for him unlike Bucs kickers of the past where misses were expected. It’s not something I’m concerned about with Succop though. He’s bounced back after every miss he’s had this year. On Sunday, despite the miss, he finished 2 for 2 on field goals hitting from 48 and 18 yards and was 2 for 3 on extra points.
Tom Brady and the Bucs offense didn’t come out guns blazing like I thought they would after their bye week. Instead, they were sluggish and not on the same page. Things you wouldn’t necessarily expect with an extra week to prepare. Statistically, the Bucs should NOT have won this game at all, let alone by double digits. The Vikings outgained the Bucs in total plays (76-49), total yards (335-303), rushing yards (162-107), first downs (27-17) and time of possession (39:03-20:57).
That Bucs 20:57 time of possession is the lowest in a Bucs win since at least 1991 (statistics prior to that are sketchy with TOP) and it’s the second lowest TOP for ANY winning team this season (200+ games). The Seahawks are the only team to win a game this season while holding the ball less (20:32) and it was in Week 5 against the very same Vikings. To put it another way, teams with a time of possession of 39 minutes or more AND one turnover or less have lost 7 times in 141 games over the last 20 years. And six of those seven losses were by 6 points or less. The Vikings lost this game by 12 points.
The Vikings second possession of the game was a 14 play drive that ended with a touchdown and took over 8 minutes off the clock. The Bucs following possession was a 53-second three and out to start the second quarter. The Bucs offense did pull themselves together and ended up scoring on five of their first eight possessions, including three touchdowns. On the flip side, the Vikings had five drives inside the Bucs 40 yard line and two inside their 15 yard line and came away with NOTHING (thanks Dan Bailey!). The Bucs offense averaged 6.2 yards per play while Minnesota averaged just 4.4 yards per play, their second lowest average in 13 games this season.
As I said earlier, this reminded me of old school Buc ball. Tom Brady was efficient and protected the football finishing 15 of 23 for 196 yards and 2 touchdowns and no interceptions while spreading the ball around to eight different receivers. Ronald Jones also had an efficient night with 18 carries for 80 yards and a 4.4 yards per carry average and a touchdown while LeSean McCoy added 4 carries for 32 yards as well.
Maybe the offense wasn’t “ugly“, but it surely wasn’t what I was expecting coming out of the bye. They have struggled with chemistry all season and kept blaming it on the lack of time together and the lack of reps in the preseason. It’s been 13 games now and that excuse doesn’t fly with me anymore. There’s no excuse for Tom Brady and these receivers to NOT be on the same page when it comes to reading coverages and hot routes. There’s no excuse for Tom Brady missing deep throws downfield because the timing is off with his receivers. There’s just no excuse.
The Bucs are 8-5 for just the third time since 2010 and the first time since 2016. The last time they were 8-5 and made the playoffs was in 2007 and they lost three of their final four games, then lost to the Giants in the wildcard game. If Tampa Bay wants to avoid that same fate, then the offense has got to get their head out of their ass. They have to get on the same page. And they have to get off to faster starts.
They have a chance to build some real momentum going into the postseason. Their final three games are at the Falcons, at the Lions and then against the Falcons again at home. Atlanta is 4-9 and Detroit is 5-8 and BOTH have been eliminated from playoff contention. That means they don’t have anything to play for except pride and the chance to play spoilers to the Buccaneers playoff hopes.
This win against the Vikings kept Tom Brady’s impressive streak alive of not losing three games in a row since the 2002 season. In that same period of time, the Buccaneers have lost three games in a row a whopping 25 times. Coaches always say that “Winning is contagious!“. Let’s hope that’s true. The Bucs have only played one complete game on both sides of the ball this season. That was their 38-10 win against the undefeated Packers back in Week 6. That’s what this team is capable of. If they can get on a roll over the next three weeks and get all of this talent on the same page, they’re going to be a handful for ANY TEAM in the playoffs. And it all starts with their division rivals in Atlanta this Sunday.
Until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!