Bolts lose first game of year to Jackets

by Gary Shelton on January 24, 2021

in general

Cernak was injured against Columbus./CHUCK MULLER

Sunday, 4 a.m.

They have lost again. For the first time in 119 days, the Tampa Bay Lightning has come out second in a game.

Frankly, they didn't like it very much.

The Lightning, for the first time this season, took one on the nose Saturday afternoon, losing a 5-2 decision to Columbus that left everyone around rather grumpy. The Bolts gave up three goals in the first period, then was unable to score in the final two PERIODS.

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"I haven’t seen us play that bad since before the pause (last year)…the first pause," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. "We weren’t in sync at all. No one really gave us much in the game.

"Egregious turnovers, something that was not a trademark for us anywhere in our playoff run. Goals three four and five were off egregious turnovers. If you’re not managing the puck, it’s going to be a problem for us. We couldn’t score our way out of it tonight."

The Bolts lost players Mitchell Stephens and Eric Cernak during the game

". I tried to do too much at the blue line and lost a lot of pucks," said Mikhail Sergachev. It wasn't my game."

Cooper was kinder about Sergachev's play.

“Was he at his best?" Cooper asked. "No. Have we seen him play way better? Yes. Was it the worst game of his career, I highly doubt that. Maybe in the NHL. He’s grown as a player. The growth is not coming from sitting in front of a microphone and saying it was his worst game. The growth is 'what are you going to do at practice Monday or Tuesday? It's how you respond from what he considers a subpar performance. He wasn’t the only one. it was all of us as a collective. We weren’t on our game tonight."

The Bolts are now scheduled to travel to Carolina, where they are scheduled to play on Tuesday night at 7 p.m.

Can Bucs slow Packers’ Rodgers again?

by Gary Shelton on January 24, 2021

in general

Evans needs a big game for Bucs./JEFFREY KING

Sunday, 3 a.m.

In the shadow of the scoreboard, perhaps you forget. But early in the afternoon of October 18, things were going along just fine for Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers and his team were rolling. On the road, they led the Tampa Bay Bucs 10-0, and Rodgers seemed to be adding another page to his MVP resume. He had hit eight of his first 12 passes, and all seemed right in the world of cheese.

And then his day went straight to hell.

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He was picked off by Mike Edwards, who returned the ball 37 yards to the Packers' 2 and set up a Bucs' touchdown. He then was picked off by Jamel Dean, who ran it back 32 yards for a score. He had a 23-yard pass overturned by a replay. He was called for intentional grounding. And the meek Bucs' secondary suddenly was making plays in a 38-10 victory.

Rodgers finished that day with just 16 completions (a season low) for 160 yada and a rating of just 35.4. (He hit just eight of his last 23 throws). Mind you, Rodgers had 14 regular season games with a rating of more than 100. It was the only game all year he didn't throw for a touchdown. It was the only game all year that he threw two picks. It was one of only two games he was sacked at least four times.

Possible explanation? Maybe it was someone else. Maybe Rodgers was missing that day, and a stand-in took his place. That couldn't have been Rodgers, could it?

And if so, could it be again?

The Bucs, who are coming off another impressive game against the Saints, need to at least make Rodgers appear normal today. They need turnovers. They need pressure.

What they don't need is for Rodgers to blow up in the manner in which he is capable.

Let's face it. It won't be as cold as the locals prefer today, but for the Bucs, it will be a test. Lambeau Field is probably the NFL's biggest home field advantage in January and, with Rodgers, it's like playing the Spartans in Sparta.

Can the Bucs do it? Sure they can, if they're close to perfect, if they can control the ball and keep the Packers out of the end zone.

Are they likely to do it? They'll need a better start than most weeks. They'll need a big game from Mike Evans, perhaps another from Chris Godwin. They'll need to run the ball. Another interception or two wouldn't hurt, either.

Hey, say what you will. The Bucs have had a great year, and they've finally grown into the team we thought they could be.

But today, everything adds up to Green Bay's favor. If the Bucs win, yes, you can call it an upset.

Prediction: Green Bay 24, Tampa Bay 17.

Brown won’t play in NFC title game

by Gary Shelton on January 23, 2021

in general

Brown won't play for Bucs on Sunday./TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Saturday, 4 a.m.

Compared to some of his other seasons, this one was a small one for Antonio Brown.

On the other hand, he was good enough for this. It's bad news that he won't play in Sunday's NFC championship game against the Green Bay Packers.

Remember, this was the receiver the Bucs said they didn't need because of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Yet, Brown was a solid third receiver for Tampa Bay, catching 45 passes for 483 yards in eight games. He's caught three more for 59 yards in the post-season.

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Factor that over 16 games, and Brown has made a solid contribution. But unless the Bucs can beat the Packers Sunday, that may be over. The Bucs have announced that Brown will miss the title game.

“I just talked to him this morning and to put him on the plane, have him fly up there and have it swell more doesn’t make any sense,
Bucs' coach Bruce Arians said. "He wasn’t as close as we had hoped, so we’ll get him ready for the next one.” 

For Brown, it has been a season of rebuilding after he was ejected from the NFL. Even now, the court will have a statement to make on Brown's future.

But in flashes, Brown has shown that he still can play. Against Atlanta, he caught 11 passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns.

“I think we’re going to have to find a way to win," said quarterback Tom Brady. "It obviously sucks for Antonio. We all wish he could be out there with us. Other guys are going to have to step up and do the job. I’ve got a lot of confidence in the guys who haven’t been in there as much when A.B. has been in there. We wish everybody could play. We’ve lost a few guys over the course of the season. It’s a great game to play in. You would want everyone to play in this game. We’re going to have to figure out a way to win regardless.”

Brady will still have Evans and Godwin, plus Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate, Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson. The loss of Brown won't determine winning or losing.

For Brady, it will be the 14th conference title of his career.

“I just try to do the best I can do to show up everyday with a good attitude, work hard and do what my job is," Brady said. "It’s been fun just being here and I had a great time in New England, as well. I’ve had a great 21 years. I’m a very blessed and lucky guy. The fact that I’m still playing football, for me, is a blessing. I’ve had a lot of great teammates that I’ve played with over the years and a great group this year. That’s the best part about football is all of the relationships you have. It’s been a fun year doing it.”

Brady says the game remains the same as his early days.

"I think the fundamentals of football have stayed pretty much the same," Brady said. "There have been some rule changes and so forth, but the team that is most prepared, has the best fundamentals and executes under pressure is the one that wins. I don’t think that changes. I think you can run different schemes and routes. No one has really reinvented the game. It’s probably more of a skill contest now than probably what it used to be. There is probably not as much contact. It’s still a very physical game, but probably more skill than power. It probably used to be as much power as skill and now it’s probably more about quickness and on how things are being called. That’s probably the only real difference.

"Again, I try to show up everyday with a positive attitude to work hard and do my job. Like I said, I’ve got a lot of great teammates [and] great coaches that do the same. The rewarding part in a team sport is that we’re all showing up together with the same goal in mind. How you work through adversity is a great thing. You’re always going to be challenged in football and in life and how you work through those things, how you communicate through them [and] how you inspire each other to be the best that you can be – that’s the best part about sports. That’s why I’m still playing.”

The Packers are a 3.5-point favorite in Sunday's game, which is scheduled to begin at 3:05 p.m.

Bucs must deal with Packers’ legends

by Gary Shelton on January 22, 2021

in general

Brady is building his own legend./BUCCANEERS.COM

Friday, 4 a.m.

There are ghosts riding the cold winds of the frozen tundra.

They gather there in the biggest games, inviting their present-day counterparts to join them in immortality. Once more, just before kickoff, they gather beneath the scoreboard, taunting their opponents, reminding them of the domination that was.

They are Vince Lombardi and Mike Holmgren, and they would have Matt LaFleur take a seat beside them. They are Bart Starr and Brett Favre. They are Paul Hornung and Jimmy Taylor. They are Reggie White and Willie Davis. They are Ray Nitschke and Clay Matthews. They are Herb Adderly and LeeRoy Butler. They are Sterling Sharpe and James Lofton. They are Jerry Kramer and Forrest Gregg.

Around Wisconsin, they are comic book heroes, legends that braved the elements and the opposition, men who made a small community big, legends and folks of lore.

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Sunday, the Tampa Bay Bucs will have to contend with all of it, with a team that is trying to measure up the high standards of their predecessors. They are Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Jones, Davante Adams and Za'Darius Smith, and they are trouble enough without the ghosts.

On the other hand, there are the Tampa Bay Bucs.

They have Tom Brady.

When it comes to immortality, to being larger than life, that's as close as the Bucs get. Brady has 14 of these championship appearances. And never mind that he is 43, and that he is coming off a pedestrian game. Sunday's game is a classic quarterback against a classic team. If Brady is good enough, the Bucs have a shot. If he isn't, they probably do not.

Give Brady credit for this. For all of the Packers' greatness, no one has six Super Bowl rings. So, yeah, he's dealing in legacy, too.

Of course, none of those rings are with the Bucs -- at least not yet. But it gives you some idea of the stakes that surround Brady in this game.

Granted, there is more to a quarterback than winning the Super Bowl. Just ask Bucs' coach Bruce Arians.

"I go back to Dan Marino – he’s arguably the best ever and he didn’t have any [Super Bowl wins]," Arians said. "So much of it is your team [and] how good is your team? Your defense and all the football players around you – not just your quarterback. Quarterbacks get all the laurels and the blame and so do the coaches. This is the ultimate team sport and I just happened to be standing on the opposite sideline of the last Super Bowl that [Aaron Rodgers] won. He played really, really well.”

Granted, it isn't just the quarterback. But the ball is usually in his hands.

“Most of the time when you get to championship games, it’s these kind of guys that are playing in them," said Bucs' offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. "It’s hard to get here. The quarterback has so much to do with getting to these type of games. Really, in NFC Championships, you really have two really good quarterbacks playing at a high level and that’s probably why both teams are there playing in that game. Obviously, these are two of the greats – two of the best to ever do it. We’re really just getting ready, though. We’re just really getting ready [and] trying to prepare ourselves to get ready for a tough defense – a defense that has a lot of really good players on it, a defense that has been playing lights out. We’re just trying to do what we can to prepare ourselves this week to get ready to play [on] Sunday.”

Much of the season has been spent with analysts talking about what Brady still has or does not. But the primary thing he has brought to Tampa Bay is simple.

“I think leadership," Leftwich said. "Leadership and his ability to get his team in these types of games. He’s been in a lot of these games, as we all know. He’s played in a lot of these championship games and it starts, really, with his leadership from day one. Making sure that everybody understands the importance of why we do everything day in and day out to give ourselves an opportunity to be in these types of moments. I just think the leadership that he brings to our team [and] the awareness that he has from being in these moments [and] being in these situations is something that we have benefitted from greatly.”

The thing is, Brady has proven he can still play, too. Just ask longtime teammate Rob Gronkowski.

“When you protect him and you give him the time, I think it gives him the ability to make the best decision for the team," Gronkowski said. "I feel like when he has time back there – he’ll hold onto the ball for sure when he has time – but when he’s sitting back there, he’s relaxed and he knows he’s not being pressured, I feel like it gives him the best opportunity to make the best decision on where the ball should go, on who should get the ball, on where the pass should be, on what coverage to read and all of that. It’s huge to keep him clean [and] it’s huge to give him time. Just overall, I feel like any team that gives their quarterback time, it gives them the best chance to win, so we’ve got to stay on that. We’ve got to stay on top of our game in that aspect and we’ve got to keep giving him time so he can get that ball out.”

Add them all together: The talent of the Packers, and the home field, and the weather, and the history, and the revenge factor (the Bucs pounded the Packers in the regular season). It all will be difficult for the Bucs to overcome.

On the other side, there is Brady.

And with him, there is hope.

The game begins at 3:05 p.m. on Sunday. 

Chilling part of the Packers isn’t weather

January 21, 2021 general

Thursday, 4 a.m. It will be balmy, okay? Sun-splashed. A day to take the boat out onto the lake. I know, I know. The longer you think about Green Bay, the more you want to go and put on a sweater. It’s snow and ice and frostbite, with a football right in the middle. You […]

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Bucs can learn from their biggest wins

January 20, 2021 general

Wednesday, 4 a.m. It shouldn’t be hard for the Tampa Bay Bucs to come up with a game plan for the Green Bay Packers for Sunday afternoon’s NFC Conference Championship game. Pretty much, all they have to do is bring out last week’s game plan against New Orleans. On top of it, they can stamp […]

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Looking back on Bucs’ victory over Saints

January 19, 2021 general

Tuesday, 4 a.m. 5 Thoughts It had been 6,526 days for the Bucs since their last impressive post-season win. It had been six coaches, 170 losses and more squandered draft picks than you can name. But who’s counting? 2. Hey, Jameis Winston was able to throw an interception. He was willing. There were just no […]

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Bucs’ defense stands tall in upset of Saints

January 18, 2021 general

Monday, 4 a.m. For every generation, there seems to be a place that represents a particular level of hell. For the Bucs of recent vintage, that place would be New Orleans. For most of the careers of most of their long-time players, New Orleans is the place where seasons went to die. That were the […]

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Memory of Bucs’ season rests on tonight

January 17, 2021 general

Sunday, 4 a.m. It was a success. Or it was a disappointment. It was a bargain. Or it was a busted investment. It was big news. Or it was an overhyped football team. All things are settled about the season of the Tampa Bay Bucs tonight. All questions are answered. If the Bucs can upset […]

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Lightning beats Chicago in familiar fashion

January 16, 2021 general

Saturday, 4 a.m. It’s early, but the good news so far is that the Tampa Bay Lightning doesn’t seem to have last year’s Stanley Cup on their minds. Instead, they seem to be thinking about the year’s Two games in against an outmanned Chicago Blackhawks team, and the Lightning has jumped to a 2-0 start. […]

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