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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ performance Sunday against the New Orleans Saints made everyone around the world forget Bruce Arians’ squad is reigning Super Bowl champs and features the league’s most potent offense.
None of those previous accomplishments mattered during the Saints’ impressive 9-0 victory at Raymond James Stadium. After such a dismal loss when Tampa Bay couldn’t must anything on offense, Tom Brady and Co. no longer hold their fate in their hands. At 10-4, a division title and another playoff berth are very much within reach. However, this isn’t the same squad that caught fire down the stretch last season and rode the positive momentum to the franchise’s second-ever championship.
With the shutout, the Buccaneers became the first No. 1-ranked scoring offense to not tally any points during a home game since 1970, per the NBC telecast. Brady trailed only Drew Brees (ironically enough) for the most consecutive starts (255) without being shut out, which obviously came to an end. The 44-year-old quarterback was 29 years old and a member of the New England Patriots in 2006 when an offense under his control produced a goose egg, per NFL Research. In fact, Sunday’s effort became the first-ever home shutout of a Brady-led offense, according to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe.
“We just didn’t play well enough,” Brady told reporters when asked about the disappointment of his team not clinching the division title Sunday. “… Obviously if you don’t score points, you’re not going to win.”
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Odd outcomes are a regular occurrence during this year’s NFL cycle, though. This one hurts a little more, figuratively and literally.
The Buccaneers’ chances of securing the NFC’s No. 1, thus a first-round bye, are greatly diminished. Furthermore, Tampa Bay could be without multiple key contributors over the next few weeks.
The standings have become muddled beyond the Green Bay Packers, who hold a significant advantage. The Buccaneers faded into the malaise of the 10-4 trio, which also includes the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys. All three are good teams, but they’re far from dominant. The Cardinals stunningly lost to the Detroit Lions on Sunday, while the Cowboys are building some positive momentum with three straight wins, albeit after a 1-3 stretch in November.
Schedules are important from this point forward.
On paper, Tampa Bay has the easiest pathway among the top four NFC squads. The Buccaneers face the Carolina Panthers twice with the New York Jets sandwiched between those two contests.
For comparison, the Packers have a favorable schedule as well, albeit not quite as manageable. Meetings with the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions are winnable, though each team is capable of playing well and winning any of those contests based on their efforts as of late. The Cowboys and Cardinals both play each other in Week 17. Dallas has Washington and Philadelphia wrapped around that particular showdown. Arizona, meanwhile, lost its last two with the toughest stretch of the three against the Indianapolis Colts, Cowboys and rival Seattle Seahawks
Realistically, the Buccaneers should win out and could get some help to backdoor their way into becoming the NFC’s top team. Therein lies the issue with Sunday’s loss. Tampa Bay needs help. Green Bay already holds a one-game lead in the overall win-loss column, plus a two-game advantage among the two teams’ conference records. Right now, the Cowboys are the NFC’s best performer with an 8-1 conference record, which places them as the No. 2 seed.
The records and schedules are what they are. Tampa Bay needs help to get where it wants to be. The ability to do so is more worrisome based on the injuries that occurred during its latest contest, particularly on offense.
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The Buccaneers’ top two wide receivers—Mike Evans and Chris Godwin—both left the field Sunday and didn’t return. Godwin took a hard shot to the lower body on a crossing pattern and bent in half. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport almost immediately reported major damage seems to have been avoided and Godwin suffered a sprained MCL. Evans went up for a pass over the middle and came down awkwardly before he left the game, though his injury may not have tied directly into that specific snap. The Buccaneers ruled out their all-time leading receiver with a hamstring issue.
To make matters worse, running back Leonard Fournette also pulled a hamstring. In Fournette’s case, the Buccaneers have a capable backup in Ronald Jones II, who carried the ball eight times Sunday for 63 yards. Jones is a good placeholder, but he doesn’t bring the same value as the former fourth overall draft pick. During the Buccaneers’ previous four-game winning streak, Fournette averaged 107.25 yards from scrimmage per contest. The running back has also been a big part of the passing game with six or more receptions in five of Tampa Bay’s last six games. Jones corralled seven receptions all season.
Brady is Brady. Tampa Bay’s offensive line ranks among the league’s best, though the group struggled to contain Cameron Jordan. Tight end Rob Gronkowski will remain a featured part of the offense even with his latest off-game. Tyler Johnson and Jaelon Darden are promising players, but they can’t replace Evans and Godwin.
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“The young guys, I was hoping they’d step up a little more,” Arians admitted.
As a result, Tampa Bay fell to No. 2 in total offense after gaining a meager 302 yards.
The Buccaneers won’t be nearly as efficient if three main contributors miss any time whatsoever because of their recent injuries. Sunday’s result showed a group that stagnated. Now in must-win territory to maintain or better its current status, the Buccaneers’ offense can’t be counted upon during the final three weeks of the regular season.
Throw a foot injury to linebacker Lavonte David into the mix as well on a defense that already missed safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and cornerback Jamel Dean to various maladies.
Arians outright stated the injuries are more concerning than the actual loss.
Maybe some magic spell can be concocted for Evans, Godwin and Fournette to return sooner rather than later and have the competition fall by the wayside. Otherwise, the Buccaneers are in a strange position because they really have no way to home-field advantage as they work toward what looks like quite the difficult postseason journey.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.