Around this time last year, the Buccaneers were in the middle of a breakthrough. Tampa Bay emerged from its Week 13 bye week to rattle off four consecutive wins and finish the regular season 11-5. The Bucs’ win streak helped stoke the needed confidence to power the team to another four wins in the postseason, including the Super Bowl crown.
On paper, it looks like things are going according to plan for the Bucs this season. Tampa Bay enters the postseason as the NFC’s no. 2 seed, comfortable winners of a weak NFC South. The Bucs finished the season tied for the league’s best overall record at 13-4. Brady posted a ridiculous 5,316 passing yards and 43 touchdowns (both league highs).
There are very few, if any, NFL teams whose starting units are as talented as the Bucs’. Entering the season, the singular potential roadblock that analysts identified for Tampa Bay was poor injury luck and a need to reach further down the depth chart for production. The Bucs were the NFL’s healthiest team last season. But this postseason, Tampa Bay will be without two of its most important offensive playmakers: receivers Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown. And it will deploy defensive stars who have been limited recently: Lavonte David, Shaq Barrett, and Jason Pierre-Paul. As the Bucs enter the postseason, those roster adjustments cast doubt over their chances to repeat as champions.
The Bucs have always been aware of the difficulty of repeating. They endured plenty of strain in their first Super Bowl win. Entering the 2021 offseason, they wanted everyone who had experienced that championship run back. They were “going for two,” as coach Bruce Arians put it.
An all-hands effort to win it all requires all hands to be available. Last season, the Bucs experienced no significant injuries, but this year, that isn’t the case. On Tuesday, veteran cornerback Richard Sherman—a midseason addition brought in to help as Tampa Bay’s secondary dealt with injuries—was placed on injured reserve because of an Achilles issue. But Sherman, who’s played 26 percent or more snaps only once since Week 6, is just the latest in a string of defensive ailments.
Sherman’s signing was beckoned by injuries to Tampa Bay’s starting cornerbacks, Sean Murphy-Bunting (elbow) and Carlton Davis (quad), who were both placed on IR, in weeks 2 and 5, respectively. (No. 3 corner Jamel Dean was forced out of a handful of contests this season, but missed only one game.) Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (foot) missed four weeks but started each of Tampa Bay’s final two games. Murphy-Bunting and Davis have also started opposite each other for most of the second half of the season.
The front seven is also banged up. David (foot) has been on injured reserve since Week 16. Edge rushers Pierre-Paul (shoulder) and Barrett (sprained MCL and ACL) each missed the final few weeks of the regular season, too.
Last season, it was the Bucs’ stalwart defense that carried the team to a Super Bowl. Tampa Bay ranked fifth in defensive DVOA. Absences from key contributors helped drop the unit down to ninth in that category this season.
Then there are the glaring losses on offense, which was dealt a wave of significant blows late in the season. Godwin suffered a torn ACL in Week 15 and is out for the season. Mike Evans has been hampered by a hamstring injury throughout the year. Brown is no longer with the team. Running backs Leonard Fournette (hamstring) and Giovani Bernard (hip) each landed on IR this season, while tailback Ronald Jones II (ankle) is doubtful to play Sunday. In the Bucs’ season finale, Tampa Bay’s offense featured players such as Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Tyler Johnson, and Breshad Perriman. Rob Gronkowski and Evans were playing, but it wasn’t the all-world cast that Brady signed up to play alongside. With Godwin and Brown out, the Bucs passing attack is missing 31 percent of its receiving yardage, 21 percent of its receiving touchdowns, and 26 percent of its targets.
Last season’s championship run might have focused on Brady’s greatness, but his teammates’ efforts were the difference. In the wild-card round against Washington, it was David’s third-and-long sack that all but clinched the victory. Linebacker Devin White and safety Mike Edwards each picked off Drew Brees in the fourth quarter to seal a divisional-round win. When Brady threw three picks in the NFC championship game against the Packers, the defense forced Aaron Rodgers and Co. to punt twice on ensuing drives, then made a red-zone stop that led to Green Bay kicking that infamous field goal. It all culminated in the ass-whupping that the Bucs defense handed to the Chiefs offense in the Super Bowl. Brady is the star attraction, but the Bucs won the Super Bowl as a team, and their chances of repeating hinge on the team playing to its potential.
That’s especially true considering how good the Packers have looked this season. Rodgers is on his way to winning the MVP award for the second season in a row, and Green Bay owns home-field advantage for the second season in a row. The slim margins by which the Bucs eked out a win last year may be even slimmer without a fully healthy roster. Arians was asked Monday if he felt the best team, rather than the most talented, can win the Super Bowl, and he said he didn’t have any doubts about it.
“It’s how you execute,” he said. “When you go out there and you have no penalties [and] no turnovers on offense, you’re giving yourself a chance. The most talented team doesn’t win just because you’re talented. You have to go out there and play. You have to make those plays. I really look forward to this week and it’s one game at a time. It’s a one-game season and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.”
The good news for the Bucs is that, aside from a Week 15 meltdown against the Saints, their offense rarely struggled. Tampa Bay finished first in offensive DVOA and Brady looks even better than he did last year. There are also reinforcements on the way. Arians indicated that Fournette (placed on injured reserve Week 16), Barrett, and Pierre-Paul are all expected to return for Sunday’s wild-card contest against the Eagles. Still, the Bucs lack the same momentum they had at the beginning of last season’s playoffs.
At 44, Brady doesn’t need to do anything more to add to his legacy, but carrying this Bucs team to a Super Bowl in a wide-open NFC might be even more impressive than last season’s championship. It certainly won’t be easy.