The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 3-5 after eight weeks of the 2022 season and they were 6-8 in mid-December after a pair of humbling losses to San Francisco and Cincinnati. This were not things that happened to the Buccaneers; as many coaches enjoy saying, you are what your record says you are. With half the season to go, the Bucs were riding three-game losing streak and searching for answers on offense. With there weeks to go, the Bucs were still two games under .500 and facing a series of what were essentially "must-win" games.
Fortunately for Tampa Bay, the NFC South struggled as a whole in 2022 and no team had taken control as the season wound down. The Buccaneers still controlled their own destiny in terms of winning the division, and then they went and did just that with comeback wins over Arizona and Carolina. That left Week 18 in Atlanta meaning nothing and the Bucs lost after pulling Tom Brady and their starters before or at the half.
The various limiting factors for the Falcons, Panthers and Saints gave the Bucs a shot, and it was a team-wide resiliency that allowed them to take advantage of it.
"Those guys are resilient," said Head Coach Todd Bowles of his players. "They didn't blink. We didn't blink. The guys didn't blink – they hung together, they stayed together, they knew what they had to do and we kind of dug ourselves out of it."
Unsurprisingly, it was Brady who led the way. He would finish the season with 25 touchdown passes and nearly 4,700 yards, which looks pretty great until those numbers are compared to what he and the Buccaneers' passing attack had done the previous two years. The Bucs' per-game scoring averaged dropped nearly two touchdowns from the 2020-21 campaigns to this year, which helps explain why the Bucs tied for the NFL's best record last year but won the division at 8-9 in 2022. But Brady came through in crunch time again and again and the Bucs' got their second consecutive division title, just in a rather different way than the year before.
"Again, Tom's tough," said Bowles. "He's been around for a long time. There's not a lot he hasn't seen or been through. I don't think every day of his career has been a great day. He's had some rough days here and there, but he works through them, he's resilient, he's very tough, he loves to play the football game. He's excited to play the game every week and he led us out of a things. The team as a whole got out of a lot of things. There's a lot of guys that dealt with things every day that didn't get brought to the light. But as a whole, we hung together and came through it."
Brady wasn't around to pull the Bucs out of another big deficit in the second half on Sunday in Atlanta, and a defense comprised almost totally of reserves had difficult getting off the field after the intermission anyway. It's irrelevant and does nothing to diminish Atlanta's win, but it's worth wondering how the second half would have gone if the Bucs had any stakes in the outcome. Brady led the offense on an impressive first-possession touchdown drive and the visitors had a 17-10 lead at halftime and an overall yardage advantage of 184-78. The first half at least let the Buccaneers feel like they were maintaining the momentum from their division-clinching win over the Panthers the week before.
"Again, it's resiliency, toughness," said Bowles. "We hang together, we stay in every game. Even though it might not be clean all the way, we find a way to be in it and we just have to make plays at the end the ballgame. We're confident and we understand that, so we don't feel like we're out of any ballgame."
The Bucs may need to play some games that are at least cleaner to advance far in the playoffs, and Bowles noted that getting a fast start like the one they had on both sides of the ball in Atlanta will be key to how they fare against Dallas on Monday night. Forcing turnovers will likely be critical, as well, as will slowing down the Cowboys' powerful two-headed rushing attack. But when asked what the Bucs needed to do to have success in the playoffs, Bowles pointed not to any particular stat or phase of the game but to bond that has been built in the locker room.
"You've got to play together, number one," he said. "Everybody has to understand their role. You've got to sacrifice. You've got to sacrifice for your teammates."