1. Gronk makes a huge difference for the offense.
It's hard to argue the difference Rob Gronkowski makes when he is on the field for the Bucs' offense just by the eye test. It certainly just feels a little different when watching it. But spoiler alert: that conclusion passes all kinds of other tests, too. His impact was on full display in Atlanta, where he caught four passes for 58 yards and two 'tuddies,' as Gronk calls them.
His tuddy-buddy, Tom Brady, certainly appreciates having him out there. The pair now have the second-most regular-season touchdown connections in NFL history with 90 after Gronk had 20th multi-touchdown game of his career (which is good for the second-most in NFL history by a tight end).
"It's pretty good," said Brady after the game. "He is a great player, he kind of makes it easy for any quarterback. He is just so big and so quick and has great hands. He just does a great job. Obviously, I love being out there with him.
"He was out for quite a while this year. Just to see him back playing great and really enjoying it. It is the best part of seeing guys play to their potential. He's done an amazing job at that."
Consider that all three of the Bucs' losses came in games where Gronk was either limited or completely sidelined. The Bucs lost to the Rams in Week Three, which is when Gronk suffered multiple rib fractures and a punctured lung. He attempted to come back in Week Eight's loss to the Saints but only played five snaps before having to sit out the rest of the game. Following the bye, Tampa Bay lost in Washington and Gronk was inactive for the game.
But it isn't just about the touchdowns or wins when Gronk is on the field. There's actually a lot to be said about what he does for the run game, though you won't see him with a carry.
"I think what makes him so amazing is to do what he does in the run game and block defensive ends," said Brady after the game in Atlanta. "Some of the biggest and strongest guys in the world. To run routes and catch balls and be so athletic. Along with the endurance he has, it is just really amazing."
And therein lies the magic with Gronkowski: you don't know what he's going to do on any given play. With running back Leonard Fournette becoming the true dual-threat player he is and the Bucs fielding wideouts like Chris Godwin and Mike Evans almost every play, the decisions for who to defend are endless for an opponent.
Gronk could join Godwin and Evans in routes, or he could stay in to help block for Fournette, or heck, all four of those players could release into routes and then what do you do? How do you assign a defender that can potentially get through a 6'6, 265-player to get to the running back or the quarterback and also be able to cover that same player down the field? A defensive end or linebacker won't be fast enough. A safety won't be big enough. Forget a corner, who is probably already too busy with either Godwin or Evans, the former of which had a franchise-record 15 catches for 143 yards on Sunday.
"Having Gronk back for the last few weeks is huge in our offense," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "[Godwin and Gronkowski] controlling the inside of the field. And again, putting Gronk out wide and it's always a mismatch if they want to play man and man. It's great to have him back."
The Bucs' offense had 425 total yards of offense against the Falcons and converted eight of 13 third downs. They also came away with touchdowns on three of their four trips inside the red zone and converted both of their goal-to-go situations. It was their ninth game of the season scoring 30 or more points.
2. Tale of two halves for the defense
Well really, a tale of one and three quarters. The first quarter the Bucs' defense found that it needed some adjusting. We might want to add 'chiropractor' to Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles' resume because he did just that. The Falcons' first drive of the game was by far their most productive, spanning six plays, 75 yards and ending in a 17-yard touchdown run. Atlanta had 63 rushing yards on that drive alone thanks to Cordarrelle Patterson breaking free on a 39-yard run in which he evaded multiple tackles. They'd get 38 more rushing yards before halftime but after that? Just 20… total.
The defense didn't allow a point after the first quarter, either. That first touchdown was the only time they'd allow Atlanta to get into their end zone all game, for that matter. It was the only one of their three red zone trips that the Falcons converted into a touchdown and they scored on neither of their two goal-to-go situations. Atlanta's other touchdown came on a pick-six right before halftime, which of course, the defense had nothing to do with.
And while it seemed as though they couldn't stop the bleeding on third down, the Falcons were 52.9% on third down conversions… they just had 17 of them, converting nine. That's definitely more than the Bucs' defense would like to give up no matter how many third downs they force an opponent into but at the end of the day, Atlanta only got past the Bucs' 45-yard line three times all game, held them to under their average of 18.1 points per game coming into it and between the 5.0 sacks on Matt Ryan plus a forced fumble and recovery, gave the offense the chances it needed to put points on the board. You can't ask for much more than that – especially when you lose another starting corner in the middle of the game… again. Jamel Dean is currently in concussion protocol but the good news is Arians is still hopeful he can exit the protocol by next Sunday's home game against the Bills.
How's all that for an adjustment?
3. Bucs staring down division win in coming weeks.
Not only was Sunday's game a notch in the win column to improve the Bucs to 9-3 – the win also happened to come over a division opponent who had come into the game ranked second in the NFC South. The Bucs have now swept the season series against Atlanta and are 2-1 against divisional foes. They are firmly in first place with a four-game lead and could clinch the division as soon as next week. If they get the win over Buffalo and the Saints lose to the Jets, while the Falcons get a win over the Panthers this coming weekend, the NFC South crown belongs to the Bucs for the first time since 2007.
Now if only Green Bay and Arizona would lose next week… then the Bucs could be staring down the top seed in the entire conference.