The Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened the 2022 season with a 19-3 win at Dallas, and that 16-point difference proved to be their largest margin of victory all year. The Buccaneers beat New Orleans, 20-10, the following week but then did not win another game by more than six points for the remainder of the regular season. In three of their eight victories, they had to rally from a double-digit deficit, with Tom Brady adding to his incredible total of fourth-quarter comebacks.
Now the Cowboys are coming to Tampa to kick off the playoffs for both teams and, obviously, the Buccaneers would love to win by 16 points again. Given that the 2022 NFL season set a record for most games (203) in which the score was within eight points in the fourth quarter, the more likely scenario is that the game will be tight and one team or the other will swing it with a couple of big plays in the final minutes.
That's why Brady is reminding his teammates that there's no tomorrow for the 2022 Buccaneers if they aren't the team that makes those key plays on Monday night.
"Yeah, I feel there's a lot urgency naturally this week," he said. "Everyone knows what we're playing for; you're playing for a chance to move on. There's no, 'Oh, we were close,' or, 'It was almost there. Two more plays.' Look at two seasons ago – we ended up winning it all [and] there was a lot of really close plays. Last year, it comes down to plays at the end of the game that they made and we didn't.
"You're going to have make a play at the end. It's tough because there's good teams and there's little margin of error. All these teams are well-coached, they've got good offenses, good defenses, they've got a lot of good playmakers. These are the best teams that are playing right now and you've got to play good if you want to advance."
The Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV at the end of Brady's first season in Tampa. While the final game was a lopsided 31-9 decision over Kansas City, the three road victories the Bucs logged to get there were all tight late into the second half. Lavonte David produced a drive-killing sack on Washington's final possession in an eight-point win in Week One. Devin White had a fumble recovery and an interception in the second half in the Divisional Round at New Orleans to rally the Bucs from a touchdown down to a 10-point win. And in the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay, Chris Godwin got six yards on a third-and-five end-around to keep Aaron Rodgers from getting the ball back one more time in a five-point decision.
The Bucs opened the 2021 playoffs by beating Philadelphia soundly but found themselves in a 27-3 hole against the Rams in the third quarter of their Divisional Round matchup. Brady led a stunning comeback to tie the game at 27-27 with less than a minute to play, but in this case it was the Rams who made the game-winning plays, as two Cooper Kupp catches for 64 yards set Matt Gay up for the winning field goal.
Because the Buccaneers have had to rally for a handful of their wins this year, they've had plenty of experience needing to make a play or two at the end. In a couple cases – a 14-12 loss against Green Bay in Week Three and a 20-18 loss at Pittsburgh in Week Six – they didn't quite make enough plays at the end to pull it out, coming up empty on a pair of two-point conversion attempts. The Bucs still managed to capture the NFC South title and make their third straight playoff appearance, but there won't be any second chances if they come up short again on Monday night.
"I think there's been quite a few of those situations where they've come up and we've executed well and won," said Brady. "There's other times where we've executed pretty well and then missed a couple two-point conversions, I think Green Bay and Pittsburgh. And then there's some where we didn't execute well. Yeah, hopefully it's one of those games where…hopefully it doesn't come down to that, but if it does I think we have confidence we can pull it out. I'm sure they have confidence, too. They're a good football team, they're really well-coached, they've got really a good offense. We've played them now multiple times, once this year, once last year, so I think we know what we're dealing with and they're very, very good, with very good players, very good playmakers on both sides of the ball."
Despite that Week One result, the Cowboys ended up winning four more games than the Buccaneers did during the regular season. They have also been installed as slight favorites by the oddsmakers for Monday night's rematch. Dallas has the NFL's third-highest per-game scoring average, while their defense is second in the league at producing sacks. The Buccaneers are well aware of how dangerous the Cowboys are, but Brady says it all comes down to who can come up with the best effort once the game kicks off.
"It's not the best team that wins, it's the team that plays the best wins," he said. "I was part of a team that won every game until the Super Bowl and we didn't play the best that day and we lost, and you don't end up reaching your goal. I've been on the other end of it where I was a big underdog, my first year starting against the Rams, and we played better than they did that day. But that's all that matters.
"That's what single elimination is all about. You've got to be at your best in that moment. It could come down to a kick, it could come down to a Hail Mary, it could come down to a situational play at the end, a third-and-one. Hopefully all the preparation has got us to this point and we're prepared for what we're about to face, a very tough hard-nosed team that plays well, that's been good for a long time, and we're going to have to go play well."