Tuesday, 4 a.m.
The best movies come down to the final reel.
The finest novels are especially great in the final chapter.
The best competitions feature a fight to the finish.
That's just drama. You don't capture Hannibal Lector with 15 minutes to go in the movie. James Bond doesn't defuse the bomb with 20 minutes to go. Darth Vader doesn't die until the climax. Rocky doesn't win with three rounds to go. Wesley, also known as the Dread Pirate Roberts, doesn't win until it matters. Anything else would be inconceivable.
It goes to the end.
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And so it will be with this year's Tampa Bay Bucs. If they are going get into these playoffs, somehow, it will take a sword fight on the castle walls. They will survive the Terminator just before the final credits. They will win the gunfight at high noon.
Why? Because that's what good teams do.
It has happened before, you know. The Tampa Bay Bucs haven't gone 2-0 in their final two games very often in their history. Only six times. Four of those, however, it led to bigger things. Every time, it turned a forgettable season into a memorable one.
This time, it is down to Jameis Winston, still fighting through his turnovers. It will come down to Gerald McCoy, fighting for his first season that would matter. It is down to Mike Evans, arm-wrestling as he runs pass patterns. It is down to Dirk Koetter, trying to elbow his sleeping offense. It is down to Doug Martin, trying to find a bit of daylight.
Two games to go.
Two games the Bucs must win.
On the surface, it seems doable. The Bucs have already beaten the Saints and Panthers in close games. They're ahead of both teams in the standings. But the Saints, with Drew Brees, scored as if they were in a pinball game Sunday. The Panthers, behind Cam Newton, are struggling for another win. And worst of all, the Bucs are in an offensive funk.
“We’re having some trouble in multiple spots. We’re too inconsistent overall on offense,” said Bucs' coach Dirk Koetter. “We just got out of our rhythm. We’ve been in a nice little roll of not turning the ball over and we got back to putting our defense in bad positions. We had a couple of chances early and we’ve got to finish with touchdowns. Those two field goals we kicked in the first half, the eight points that we left out there by not finishing with touchdowns, those look pretty big at the end of the game. Then, the fact that a couple offensive turnovers led to field goals the other way.
“So, everybody gets credit when we do well and everybody gets to share in the blame including the coaches, including me when we don’t do well. So, I’m not one to pin all our woes on our offensive line. We all took turns.”
Given that, can the Bucs win two straight?
And, really, do they have any other choice if this is going to be a memorable season.
Like 1982. Remember?
John McKay was in charge. A strike had interruped the season.
But with two games to go, the Bucs were 3-4, just another team in the pack. To get to the post-season tournament, it was going to take a couple of close wins over Detroit and Chicago.
The Bucs got them both. They came from a 21-6 deficit to beat the Lions, 23-21. Then they came from 23-6 down against Chicago to win 26-23 in overtime. Doug Williams threw for 367 and 267 yards in the two games.
The streak got the Bucs into the playoffs, where they lost to Dallas. Still, it was a keeper year. (McKay was also 2-0 in 1977, the first two wins in franchise history, and in 1984, when his team rallied to finish 6-10).
How about 1999? After a 45-0 clobbering at the hands of the Oakland Raiders (coached by Jon Gruden), Tony Dungy's team was only 9-5. But the Bucs won back-to-back games over Green Bay (29-10) and Chicago (20-6) to get into the tournament.
The Bucs advanced all the way to the NFC title game that year, where they lost 11-6 to the Rams in the cruelest loss ever for Tampa Bay.
Then there was 2005. The script was similar. In their 14th game, the Bucs lost 28-0 to Patriots, then won two straight to finish an 11-5 season. They beat Atlanta (27-24 in overtime) and New Orleans (27-13) to reach the playoffs. The Bucs lost 17-10 to Washington in that one.
The Bucs were also 2-0 in 2010 under Raheem Morris. They were 8-6 after losing yet another 14th game. But they beat Seattle and won at New Orleans to go 10-6. They missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker; otherwise Morris might not have lost his job after a 4-12 season the next year.
The common thread. In all of those seasons, and all of those games, the offense had some life. That hasn't been true lately. Tampa Bay's five-game winning streak included three wins in which Tampa Bay didn't crack 20 points.
“It’s usually not the same thing twice. It’s usually multiple, multiple things,” Koetter said. “So, in the second drive right before the half, we actually had it at first-and-10 on the 10 and we had a running play and we had somebody late off the snap, so we had like a four-yard loss that would have been second-and-14 and then we get the penalty on top of that, so now we’re in second-and-28 or whatever it was — a long ways.
“We had to work it back down to get the field goal there. The first drive, they covered us pretty good on third down. We had that third-and-two. They actually covered, we tried to throw that pass to (tight end) Cam (Brate) over the middle. They covered us pretty good. Third quarter of course, we were on fire in the third quarter and then we couldn’t move it enough to get it in the red zone in the fourth quarter.”
And now it is down to this. If the Bucs go 10-6, you have to figure they'll make the playoffs. But they go 9-7 – or worse, 8-8 – it may go down as a season of progress. But it won't feel like enough. It will be hollow. Empty.
Because those fights to the finish?
You have to win them before they mean anything.