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Five reasons to be hopeful (and nervous) about Bucs playoff chances

Welcome back to the postseason, Tampa Bay. Oh how we missed ya.

Yes, it’s been a long time since the Bucs have played meaningful football in January. The last time the Buccaneers tasted the playoffs, Jeff Garcia was starting at quarterback for Tampa, Barack Obama wasn’t even President yet, the first iPhone was released, the Cupid Shuffle debuted, and Tom Brady was still in his prim…okay, so not everything has changed.

The last 13 years in Tampa have been a journey, a mostly painful one. They panicked and hired Raheem Morris, then shoved him out the door. They flirted with Chip Kelly and entertained Mike Sherman (heavens knows why), then suffered through Greg Schiano. They fell in love with Lovie Smith and two years later promoted Dirk Koetter, only to fall out of love fairly quickly. Josh Freeman and Jameis Winston came in one door and out the other. They said goodbye to Monte Kiffen, experienced first round busts in Mark Barron, Adrian Clayborn, and Gaines Adams (R.I.P), and thought they could turn Mike Glennon into Aaron Rodgers.

But one signing in the 2020 offseason seemed to erase an ugly period of time that to many Bucs fans felt as bad as the Hugh Culverhouse days. They finally invested in an experiment that worked, and for the first time in 13 years, are about to experience phase 2 of a football season. There’s still a couple more phases to go through, but just getting that foot in the door feels “oh so good” for Bucs fans.

But while many in Tampa are just happy to see the playoffs again, for the players, it’s nothing but a new season comprised of four games where if they don’t go 4-0, it’s a disappointment. Tom Brady wants ring No. 7 and his teammates all have one goal in mind: to be playing at Raymond James Stadium in February. Guys like Brady and Gronk have been there, done that, and they want to be do it again.

Whether that can become a reality is cloudy. The Bucs season has been anything but steady. The ship has been more turbulent than a cruise through the Arctic Sea in mid-December. One week they’re being touted as the team no one can beat, the next week they turn on the television to hear Max Kellerman making fun of Tom Brady for the 86th time. It’s been a wild rollercoaster ride to say the least.

So generally, the unpredictable postseason is just that…unpredictable. The angel on the right wearing says you have to love your chances while the devil on the left just laughs while wearing a Saints jersey.

With that in mind, Bucs fans, let’s analyze your chances. Here are five reasons to like Tom Brady’s chances of holding up the Lombardi yet again in February….and five reasons to be very nervous.

Five Reasons To Think Super Bowl

1. The Experience Factor

So yeah, in case you haven’t heard, the Bucs have a quarterback who’s been there, done that. Tom Brady has six Super Bowl rings along with nine AFC Championships. When he tells what the recipe is for thriving in the postseason, you’d be a clown not to listen. The G.O.A.T, as many call him, knows what it takes to get it done. And while last year didn’t work out the way he wanted, that Patriots team didn’t have the weapons around him like he has this year.

But it goes outside of Brady. Bruce Arians has been to the postseason before. He was the Steelers offensive coordinator when they won Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa. He also took the Arizona Cardinals to the NFC Championship game five years ago with Carson Palmer at the helm.

Rob Gronkowski has a Super Bowl ring (actually two). So does Antonio Brown. Jason Pierre-Paul helped the Giants take down the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. So the Bucs have guys who know what it takes to bring home a second Lombardi Trophy to Tampa.

2. They Got Game

No one will argue that the Bucs on paper could be the best team in the NFL. Around Tom Brady, they have three Pro Bowl receivers in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown, along with a Pro Bowl tight end in Rob Gronkowski. Ali Marpet is a pro bowler and considered one of the best guards in the game and Tristan Wirfs has been among the top rookie breakouts in 2020.

Defensively, despite losing Vita Vea, they rank No. 1 in the NFL in rush defense. They also field one of the best linebacking corps in football with Lavonte David, Shaq Barrett, and Devin White. So it’s hard to look at the roster and say they don’t have the talent to get it done. It’s just a matter of simply getting it done.

3. “High Five”

Outside of getting that bye and home field advantage, the second best possible seed is not the No. 2 seed, but rather the No. 5 seed. You avoid having to play the three defenses that gave you the most problems all year: the Bears, the Rams, and the Saints, and instead, start out with the 7-9 Washington Football Team.

Home field advantage is not as big a deal this season since barely any fans will be in attendance in D.C. The exception to “home field advantage” Green Bay which we’ll get to later on. But at the same time, to get to the Super Bowl you will have to beat the Packers and the Bucs destroyed them 38-10 earlier this season. And while the Saints-Bears and Rams-Seahawks could batter and bruise each other up in the Wild Card round if things stand like they do today, the Bucs could coast to the Division Round if they keep clicking on all cylinders offensively.

4. Late Season Surge

It’s cliche, yes, but it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. The Bucs ended the season on a four-game winning streak and go in as one of the hotter teams in the NFL. The teams that no one wants to play in the postseason are those that carry a sea of momentum behind them, thus the reason many experts are talking highly of the Bucs, the Ravens, the Bills, and the Packers Super Bowl chances.

It’s taken 15 games, but the Bucs appear to finally be on the same page offensively. Brady and Evans are clicking, as are Brady and Godwin. Meanwhile, Antonio Brown is starting to show his superstar ability in the offense. Over the last 10 quarters of football, the Bucs have outscored their opponent 115-37.

There’s no defensive coordinator out there that is excited to play the Bucs right now. Not one.

5. That “chip” on their shoulder

The Bucs should end Sunday with an 11-5 record, one of the best in the NFL, and yet only one player from the Bucs is going up I-4 to play in the Pro Bowl in Orlando. If you don’t think that’s not weighing on the minds of some of the Bucs players, ask the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons who got a taste of an angry Bucs team the last few weeks.

The Bucs seem to have a bit of a chip on their shoulder, but the best way to voice their displeasure is not with their mouth, but rather their play on the field. And when Tom Brady is on and playing with a little extra fire in your belly, well, good luck.

Five Reasons to Be Worried

1. Who Have They Beat?

The Bucs are a disappointing 1-4 against teams with a .500 record or better. That only win came against the Packers very early in the season before Aaron Rodgers and his team began finding their stride.

It’s no secret the Bucs have taken advantage of beating up on the weaker teams like Carolina, Denver, Atlanta, and Detroit, but they’re not going to be the teams in front of you in the playoffs. The Saints are, a team that just beat them 38-3 last month.

Teams seem to know the recipe to stopping the Bucs offense: pressure Tom Brady and beat them through the air. The Chiefs and Rams exposed the Bucs secondary problems, and the Saints, Bears, and Rams all illustrated that Tom Brady is a much different quarterback under fire as compared to when he has all day to throw. These are challenges the Bucs must confront in the postseason, starting with trying to find a way to contain superstar rookie Chase Young.

2. Stopping the Slow Starts

Okay, so yes, the Bucs ended their drought of first half debacles by getting out to an early 34-0 lead at halftime against the Lions and then putting up 23 points on Atlanta in Week 17. But it was the Lions and the Falcons. Prior to that, they were outscored 59-7 in the first quarter in their previous six games. You can’t ignore that.

Slow starts in the postseason will cripple you. You may be able to come back from a 24-7 deficit to the Falcons or be able to sustain one first down in the first 20 minutes against the Vikings, but that won’t get you anywhere but sitting home on the couch if you do it against the Saints or the Seahawks in the postseason.

3. That field with the Frozen Tundra

So yeah, remember that 38-10 win against the Packers earlier this season? That happened to be on a pristine and crystal clear 80-degree in Tampa in early October. When the Packers played the Titans two weeks ago, Aaron Rodgers and his teammates played like it was 80 degrees and sunny outside while the Titans played like it was snowing. This is the advantage that the Packers have over other teams. While teams need to adjust to the frigid conditions that they’re not used to practicing in, it’s like a regular summer day for the Packers who are quite acclimated to it.

The good news is this isn’t the Bucs of the 1980s and 1990s that can’t win when the temperature is under 32 degrees. They shed that label when they knocked off the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2002 NFC Championship, and the guys they have on their team are no stranger to cold weather, including Brady who won in a blizzard against the Raiders 20 years ago.

But just because you have players that are experienced doesn’t take away from the fact that Aaron Rodgers is playing the best football of anyone over the last two months and just seems to play better when the temperature drops.

4. Where’s the Defense?

Defensively, it’s a far cry from 2002. While Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Lavonte David at times do resemble greats like Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, and Warren Sapp, there is no Ronde Barber or John Lynch scaring any receivers in the secondary. And that’s where the problems lie…in the secondary.

Cooper Kupp went for over 200 yards receiving on the Bucs just a couple months backs. Heck, Tyreek Hill put up over 200 yards in the first quarter! Just last week, Matt Ryan threw all over Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean. While Antoine Winfield, Jr. and Carlton Davis have shown promise and give the team some hope for the future, this is still a secondary to be nervous about in the postseason.

They should be fine against Washington who doesn’t really pose a serious threat offensively, but when you have to potentially face Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and hopefully in their case Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen, you can’t be letting wide receivers fly by you like Wile E. Coyote. Let’s face it, if you have to play the Seahawks, D.K. Metcalf is Tyreek Hill, except 6 inches taller.

The Bucs cure to that is trying to pressure the quarterback which they’ve done well at in spurts, but not consistently. Getting in track meets may be okay in October, but in January, it’s about grinding out wins. You need a defense to win that grind.

5. Brady Needs Time

In Super Bowl XLII, the New York Giants clearly showed the rest of the NFL the krytonite to beating a Tom Brady-led offense: hit him. Brady at times can seem supernatural, but he can look like Jameis Winston or Josh Freeman when he has no time to throw the football. When you pressure him, he looks like he’s 43 years old, but when you give him time, he looks like he’s 23.

The Bucs offensive line is very good, but they have holes, and good defensive lines have figured out some of those holes this season. Most of those holes rest on the left side with Donovan Smith. Tristan Wirfs has gone through some rookie pains but he as improved each week. Ali Marpet is a dominant force when healthy, and Ryan Jensen and Alex Cappa have proven to be above average lineman. But Donovan Smith has at times struggled and defenses have figured that out.

The good news is the Bucs worst games on the line seemed to come when Marpet was out against the Saints and Rams. Smith will have his first challenge immediately against defensive rookie Chase Young who has proven to be a problem for quarterbacks while the Bucs star rookie right tackle will have to prove his worth against Montez Sweat.

Really, reason No. 5 may be the most important key for the Bucs. If they can give Tom Brady time to throw, I’m not sure there’s a defense out there that can stop this Bucs wide receiving corps. But if you rattle him and put the pressure on the defense, the Bucs all of a sudden become just an average football team not likely to make it very far.

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