The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense had a brilliant first half against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 15. The Buccaneers ran out to a 17-0 lead (it was 17-3 at halftime) and piled up 261 yards and 16 first downs while converting 42.9% of their third downs. They ran for 67 yards, threw for 194 yards and did not give up a sack or commit a turnover. It wasn't quite flawless, as one drive stalled inside the five-yard line and one ended on a missed field goal from 50 yards away. But it was quite good, perhaps the best half of the season for the Bucs' offense.
Double those numbers to account for all four quarters and we're talking more than 30 points, 500 yards and 30 first downs. Those are levels the Buccaneers did, in fact, reach on multiple occasions during the 2020-21 seasons, particularly in terms of scoring. But, of course, you can't simply assume a repeat in the second half and the Buccaneers definitely did not repeat that performance in the second half. A failed fake punt and four turnovers on the first five drives of the second half doomed the Buccaneers to an eventual 11-point loss as the Bengals surged for 34 unanswered points.
And therein lies the reason that, while the Buccaneers can gain some confidence for the final three regular-season games in seeing those sorts of first-half results, they can't assume they have found all the answers. Tom Brady and company are clearly capable of producing the type of plays that led to so much scoring over the previous two seasons, but can they do so consistently over the next three weeks?
"I think those good plays kind of build on each other and help confidence," said Brady after practice on Thursday. "The interesting thing is, it's not like there's a lack of confidence. It's just a lack of execution and our ability to do it consistently, and I think the ability to do it is one thing but to do it consistently well has been a problem. There's spurts where it's been good and we can do a lot of things the right way, and there's other times where we haven't, which leads to where our record's at. I think the point is, we're 15, 16 weeks into the season, including the bye, and the whole season comes down to three really important games. And this is the first of the three and we're going to go battle our ass off to try to make it happen."
This first of the final three games is in Arizona on Christmas night. The Buccaneers head into the 16th weekend of the season with a one-game lead over the other three teams in the NFC South despite a 6-8 record that dipped below .500 with consecutive loss to the 49ers and Bengals. In the end, whether you cringe at the optics of winning a division just a bit above or below .500 or you couldn't care less as long as there's a division title waiting at the end, it doesn't matter to the Bucs' preparations for this final stretch run.
"We can't do anything about the past, so we're beyond what we wish we could have been," said Brady. "We're at where we're at. We wish we won every game, I certainly do, but we didn't earn it. If you don't earn it, then what do you expect? We've got to try to go earn it this week, and hopefully take all the lessons from 14 games and apply them towards this week. Going on the road, there's times where we've done a decent job. The first couple weeks of the year we did a great job. We went to Germany and did a great job. There haven't been many other times we've done a real good job of that. Some challenges just with Christmas and all that, but we've got to put them aside and go try to win a game. Our whole season's ahead of us. We've all worked hard to get to this point. [To] try to figure out how to get a win I'm sure would feel really good, but again, we've got to go out there and we've got to earn it because those teams are certainly not going to just give it to us."
Brady says he focuses less on the win and loss columns and more on the process of trying to get things right. Part of that is building resiliency even when faced with adversity. He pointed to his fumble on an attempted handoff in the third quarter – it clearly still baffles him that this happened – as an outcome that you never expected but still have to deal with.
"I think the point is that resilience is a good thing, and I think we're all trying to learn resilience in different parts of our life," said Brady. "I'm trying to teach my kids about resilience, trying to teach everyone about it because it's important for all those things. You don't go 17-0, that's not the way it goes. You could quit, you could take the easy way out, you could find a way to not play in games. I'm sure a lot of players can do that, but I don't think there's a lot of rewards in that. So at the end of the day, I feel like you've got to find what you're learning from the challenges of losing games and the challenges of dealing with adversities. It brings a lot out of you. I think when you overcome them, you learn a lot from it, you can apply it in different ways in life, and I think there's a real benefit to that as you move forward."