The Tampa Bay Buccaneers come out of their bye week with a 5-5 record, balanced perfectly on the middle beam and ready to tilt one way or the other over the next seven weeks. A two-game winning streak heading into the week off and a particularly strong performance in Munich are reasons for optimism, but at least by the measure of their record they have been perfectly average to this point.
It's not going to stay that way.
"I think this time of the year, some teams get worse and stop believing and lose hope, and other teams do the opposite," said quarterback Tom Brady, whose teams have made the playoffs in 19 of the 21 seasons in which he's started at least 14 games. "And I think that's where you really see – whether it's a championship boxing match, whether it's football season, whether it's the middle of the third quarter of a game – that's when you begin to separate yourself. You can't really separate yourself four games in, but when you get to 12 games in you can start to do that. We've got to play well."
Brady's impeccable track record is a reason for the rest of the Buccaneers to believe they will tilt the right way in the next seven weeks. So are their personal experiences over the past two seasons. The 2020 Buccaneers followed a Week 13, at which point they were 7-5, by winning their next eight games, all the way up to and through Super Bowl LV. The 2021 Bucs had an earlier by, so it felt less like the beginning of the playoff stretch run, but they did win seven of their next nine, plus one more in the postseason before losing to the eventual-champion Rams in the Divisional Round.
Brady can even trace the evidence back to his very first year as a starter. In 2001, his New England Patriots were 5-5 after 10 games but went on to win Super Bowl XXXVI, stacking up nine wins in a row, playoffs included.
All that said, Brady isn't at all tempted to offer up those seasons as proof of what is going to happen for the Bucs down the stretch. His focus at the moment is much narrower.
"I don't think you can think that far ahead," he said. "I think it's kind of pointless. You've got to think about what's in the moment and what we have ahead of us this week, and it's a tough game. It's a tough opponent. Everyone wants to jump ahead and think about things that are so far down the road. It's kind of a waste of time. Really, just focus on having a good practice, correct what we messed up, put together three good days of practice and then be prepared to play. Again, you can only win one game this week, and that game's on Sunday. So build what we can to make sure we play our best on Sunday."
A bye week roughly two-thirds of the way into a season does create a natural turning point, a time to shift the season into the next gear for a playoff run. It is also a good time for a time to rest, heal up some nagging injuries and get closer to full strength for the start of that run. The question, however, is whether a team that went into the bye playing its best ball can keep that momentum going when it comes back out. In Brady's point of view, it's just simply a new week.
"Like I said, I think every week is a new week," he said. "There's different challenges. I think we're relatively fresh and healthy, and we've got to go play well. We've got to play with great intensity and effort and enthusiasm and we've got to go execute well. We've got to throw and catch it, we've got to finish our blocks in the run game, we've got to make tackles, we've got to get to the quarterback. We've got to do all the things that winning football really demands. I think the hard part about football season is it's a marathon, and everyone's got to buckle down and give everything they've got."
As for the win over Seattle that sent the Bucs comfortably into their bye, it only really matters if the Buccaneers can start producing that kind of outing on a more consistent basis. They did not do that consistently over the first 10 weeks, which is how they wound up right at .500.
"I think the most important thing to realize is it's week to week, too," said Brady. "As good as [the Seattle game] was, it was one game and you've got to build on it. You've got to put together a bunch of those games. So we've just got to keep the pressure on, practice hard, prepare hard and ultimately when you go out there, play your ass off and see what we can make of it. We've got a big stretch ahead and it starts this week in Cleveland. It's going to be a tough game [against a] tough, hard-nosed football team, tough hard-nosed city. They're fighting hard so we've got to figure out how to go out there and win it."
The Bucs will be fighting hard, too, fighting to beat the Browns and to be one of those teams that gets better, keeps believing and gains hope. In other words, the Bucs will be working to be one of those teams that can separate itself down the stretch.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 12 practice at AdventHealth Training Center.