Monday, 4 a.m.
Every week, it seems less like a location. Every week, it seems more like a destination. Every week, they get closer to a reservation.
They are the Tampa Bay Bucs.
And, yes, they belong in the playoffs. You're darned right they do.
Every week, it seems less like a mirage. It is real now. You can touch it. It is just ahead, a few miles, a couple of turns. It is possible. It is reachable. For a team that has delivered too many broken promises, it is the promised land. And it just beyond that ridge.
With every game, it is easier to believe that they belong. With every week, with every offense that the Tampa Bay Bucs shut down, it is easier to believe that
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they would not be out of place in the post-season. With every takeaway, with every big play, this franchise feels as if it has turned a corner on its existence.
For the Bucs, the latest piece of evidence was Sunday's 16-11 victory over the New Orleans Saints. Offensively, it wasn't pretty. It wasn't stacked with highlight plays that you can talk about over the water cooler.
But it was a bloody-knuckle win in a game that could have gone either way. Good teams win these kinds of games. They go into Kansas City and win. They are home against Seattle and win. They fly to San Diego and win.
"Yeah, you think about the playoffs," Tandy said. "You have to have long-range goals. It's what football is all about. But we have to stay focused on the task at hand and keep winning."
What it was filled with were defensive gems. Remember, this was Drew Brees, who had beaten the Bucs 14 times in 21 tries. But Sunday, he led his team to only three field goals and a safety.
He threw an interception to Keith Tandy, Tandy's second game-clinching pick in two weeks. Vernon Hargreaves intercepted his first pass of the year. Brent Grimes intercepted his third. The Bucs' red zone defense kept standing up.
"Who says they don't play defense in Tampa Bay," said Bucs' coach Dirk Koetter. "(The defense) has been playing with a lot of confidence. It's great to see. Some of these guys on defense have been beat up for years."
More and more, you can see the belief of this defense grow. During this team's five-game winning streak (the Bucs hadn't won five in a row since that magical 2002 season), it has allowed only 64 points (counting two safeties) for an average of less than 15 a game. Remember Warren Sapp's old mantra; give me 17 and we'll win. This team is doing more with less.
“We talk about it in the huddle,” Tandy said. “Somebody is going to step up and make a play. We don't know who it's going to be, but somebody steps up. As a defense, we don't want to give an inch.”
By now, maybe that belief has hit you, too. Maybe you believe that, with the post-season on the line, someone is going to make a play. A sack. A fumble recovery. An interception. Something.
"For this team, the sky is the limit," linebacker Keith Tandy said. "We've got talent across the board. Guys are really figuring stuff out. It's where we want to be."
The truth about Sunday's game? No, it wasn't a great offensive performance. Winston had an 82.9 rating, his lowest in weeks. Doug Martin had only 66 yards. Mike Evans had only 42.
But the Bucs won in all the little ways that used to get them beat. Punter Bryan Anger was wonderful again, pinning two punts inside the five. The Saints cost themselves 39 more yards with penalties than the Bucs. And the Saints never reached those pretty red end zones all day.
"Do things right in this defense, there's plays for everybody," said tackle Gerald McCoy. "Tandy is a person who does everything right. He's always in place."
The worst it got for the Bucs? That was when newcomer Josh Huff let a kickoff bound off his facemask at the one, and on the first play, the Bucs were thrown for a safety. That cut the score to 13-5, and when Anger's post-safety punt went out of bounds, it gave the Saints the ball at midfield. And still, the defense refused to bend. In 10 drives by New Orleans, it forced four punts, three field goals and had three interceptions. Remember, this is the Saints team that scored 49 against the Rams two weeks ago.
Then, at the end, there was Tandy, who is turning into the Mariano Rivera of this team.
It was fourth-and-one, and Tandy recognized the New Orleans formation. Safety Bradley McDougald told Tandy he was going with him, that he had his back. For Tandy, that meant he could guess at the play, and if it was what he thought, he was going to be able to drive on it. It is, after all, one of the Saints favorite plays. “We tried to run it with our scout team,” Tandy said, “but they could never run it right.”
Sure enough, the play developed the way Tandy thought, and he drove on the ball. Interception. Game.
“When I go in, I want to do my job,” Tandy said. “I don't want there to be a drop-off.
Said Gerald McCoy: “He's where he's supposed to be. If it's making an interception, if it's making a tackle, he's where he's supposed to be.”
Simple as it sounds, that's one of the keys to a football team. Don't be a hero. Just do your job. Fill your gap. Make the tackle. Cover your man. And so on.
More and more, this team looks like runaway horses, galloping in step as they race through the canyon, picking up speed as they go. They are better than they were two weeks ago, and two weeks ago, they were better than they were two weeks earlier.
Look, by the time the playoffs come around, most of us know the difference between the teams that belong and the teams that don't. With the teams that belong, there is a fiber, a confidence that separates from the others.
More and more, this team flashes that. More and more, they are a tougher day at the office. Time was, quarterbacks used to relish playing the Bucs, and wide receivers used to imagine how big their numbers might get.
No more. This team has some backbone. This team has some steel.
“We're confident,” Tandy said. “And a confident team is a dangerous team.”
Dangerous. Now, there's a word that hasn't always been used to describe the Bucs.
Again, Atlanta has an easier schedule the rest of the way than the Bucs. Still, aren't you starting to believe this team can make it? Aren't you starting to have faith that it has enough danger to get it to the other side?