1. The Buccaneers were prepared on every level.
I'll admit it: I got kind of bored. In a playoff game. Never in whatever expectations I had leading up to the game did I think that would be an emotion I would experience but nevertheless I sat there, with the Bucs up 31-0 heading into the fourth quarter, looking at the clock to see how much time Tampa Bay still had to run out for the inevitable to become official.
At that point, it had been three quarters of the Bucs doing EXACTLY what they were supposed to do in all three phases of the ball. They may have lost the coin toss, but the offense drove straight down the field and scored. Then, the defense forced its first of six punts and I think I knew right there that it was going to be an easy, albeit breezy, afternoon.
The Bucs made it all look so effortless for most of the game – even though there were some major adjustments needed based upon player availability. The Bucs did not activate Leonard Fournette from injured reserve. Ronald Jones was out with injury. Sean Murphy-Bunting was scratched at the last minute and yet – Tampa Bay looked comfortable as ever.
Perhaps it's because they were comfortable as ever. They've had so much practice at said adjustments this year. The team brought back all 22 of since that fateful night in February. But after 17 games of grinding through it, and finishing with a franchise-record number of wins in the regular season, you start to realize that constant shuffling could be the Bucs' greatest asset as they move on into the postseason. They're comfortable in the chaos and it doesn't impede them on doing exactly what they need to do and executing exactly how they want.
No nickel corner? That's ok. Plug in safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and the Bucs still opened in their nickel package. Heck, they even ran their dime package a few times in the game with six DBs on the field. Injuries in-game to offensive linemen? The Bucs brought in bigger personnel to account for them and managed to run their goal line offense at the goal line – which was something they hadn't been able to do all year. They scored twice on a look with all three tight ends and an extra blocker in Aaron Stinnie out there.
Of course, it also helps when you have the king of calm, cool and collected commanding the huddle. Tom Brady completed 29 of his 37 pass attempts for 271 yards and two touchdowns, garnering a passer rating of 115.2 as he cruised to his 35th playoff victory.
2. Mike Evans is and always has been WR1.
Four different Buccaneers scored touchdowns but only one was done with style. If I would have told you that in a game where both Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski caught touchdown passes, most of you would probably have bet on Gronk's to be the flashy one. Most postgame highlight shows must have thought so too because the only highlight I ever saw from this game was of a very routine Brady to Gronk touchdown in the back of the end zone.
But no, it was actually Evans' 36-yard score that was the most exciting. The play after outside linebacker Shaq Barrett tipped an interception to himself in coverage (with one hand), Brady changed Evans' route at the line and went to his number one target to put the dagger into Philly's already broken wing. An attempt to tackle Evans was futile as he stepped over a defender and skipped his way to the goal line where, very surprisingly, he decided to somersault into the end zone. It perfectly encapsulated the feeling of every Bucs fan (and staff writer) in that stadium at that moment. Football is fun. And the Bucs were having fun playing it. None more than Evans, who then flipped the ball to his left tackle, Donovan Smith, so he could spike it in the paint.
Evans led the team with a franchise playoff record nine receptions for 117 yards and one touchdown, surpassing Chris Godwin for the second-most postseason receiving yards in franchise history. It was the second year in a row Evans had come in clutch in the first round of the playoffs. If you remember, coming off a hyperextended knee a week earlier, Evans torched the Washington defense for 119 yards on six receptions, though he didn't get in the end zone that game.
It further solidified Evans not only as the Bucs' 'X' receiver but perhaps its 'X factor' and we don't talk about him enough.
3. The team is coming together at the exact right moment.
Health could very well be a driving factor for the Bucs' dominating performance on Sunday. After all, the defense was as healthy as it had been since Week 1, when it was also missing Murphy-Bunting for most of the game. But the return of Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and especially Lavonte David was evident. They, along with the rest of the defense, allowed the number one rushing offense just 44 yards through the first three quarters. Quarterback Jalen Hurts, the leading rusher of said rushing offense, was limited to 39 yards rushing overall. He was responsible for exactly one first down by rushing and honestly used his legs mostly on scrambling in the backfield trying to get away one of his 43 pass attempts. Only 23 of them would result in completions. And if you think linebackers have nothing to do with a quarterback's pass attempts, Barrett and his first postseason interception of his career would like a word.
But the defense did exactly what they needed to do. Philly's first 10 drives went like this: punt, punt, punt, downs, interception, end of half, punt, interception, punt, punt.
In the meantime, the Bucs' offense scored on two of their first three drives of each half. They were also gifted a bonus possession by the special teams unit, who played their best game all season, according to Head Coach Bruce Arians. Tampa Bay kept penalties to a minimum (just four for 35 yards) and scored on all their red zone opportunities that mattered. Sure, they relaxed a bit for the fourth quarter but like I said, I think we were all a little bored by then. In the best way, of course.
This is exactly the team you've been wanting to see and they're coming alive in the postseason. With all that said though, as Tom Brady said after the game: "It only gets tougher from here."
Good thing this team seems to be able to weather the storm.