Bucs win a playoff game, but without promise

by Gary Shelton on January 10, 2021

in general

Smith was solid against the Redskins' line./CARMEN MANDATO

Sunday, 4 a.m.

Before you allow the sneer to take over your face, consider this:

The Bucs haven't won a lot of these. And they haven't won any of them lately.

So go ahead. Make fun of the Bucs' defense, that allowed a seldom used quarterback named Taylor Heinicke to turn into Drew Brees. They won, 31-23, but against a 7-9 team without its starting quarterback, it hardly felt like something to celebrate.

Still, it had been 18 years since the Bucs won a playoff game (and 13 since they had even played in one). They've won only seven in franchise history. So, no, even a close game isn't one you throw away.

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But this one didn't come with the typical promise of next week. IT's hard to imagine that defense holding up against Brees and the Saints -- or Jared Goff and the Rams. The offense needs to score touchdowns instead of field goals.

The Bucs, facing the worst offense in the NFL, allowed Heinicke to throw for 306 yards (and run for 46 more) against them. It was an awful night for the star-makers of the secondary.

“(Heinicke) was very elusive," said Bucs' coach Bruce Arians. "We knew he was going to scramble around [and] there was going to be bootlegs and scrambles. We were really hoping for Alex [Smith] because we knew that part of the game wasn’t going to be in there. He got out of some really good spots and he made some really good plays. He had a lot of poise.”

The defense made a late stop when Washington had a chance to tie the game. Lavonte David had a sack to help the Bucs.

“It was great because we were tackling [poorly] the whole game," Arians said. "We played s-----. We finally got him when it mattered. I don’t think it’s the best our defense has played – it was terrible up until the last eight minutes.

 "I think some of our guys – I don’t think veterans did, but some of our younger guys – might have relaxed when Alex Smith wasn’t playing. I kind of kept preaching at them, ‘This kid can run, he can do a lot of things.’ He almost beat us with his legs. I’m never going to apologize for winning, and next week’s next week.”

It left Bucs fan in that rare middle -- glad for a win, but realizing it wouldn't be good enough to win again next week. "Defensively, it wouldn't be," Arians said.

That defense, and their own red-zone sloppiness, kept Washington in the game. But in the end, the stars of the Bucs were too much. Tom Brady threw for 381 yards, Mike Evans caught six passes for 119 yards and running back Leonard Fournette (playing for injured Ronald Jones II) ran for 93 yards.

But perhaps the biggest players for the Bucs were offensive tackles Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs. The two held Washington's stars Chase Young and Montez Sweat in check. Young had three tackles, no sacks and no quarterback hits. Sweat had four tackles, a sack and a two quarterback hits. So much for the fear that they could take over the game.

“I think it was the biggest storyline of the week, just because one guy says, ‘I want Tom [Brady]’ all of a sudden. They’ve got a great front. Our guys took it to heart – they were going to block them. I thought we blocked them really, really well. They didn’t scare us.”

But Heinicke was almost enough. The Bucs couldn't contain him. Heinicke had kicked around at Carolina and Houston before Washington, but he had taken just 126 snaps in his career.

Heinicke's play, the leaky secondary and the Bucs' inability to finish drives kept the game closer than one would have expected. The Bus had to settle for four field goals (three inside the red zone). They also missed an extra point and a two-point conversion.

The Bucs will play the Saints next week if New Orleans beats Chicago today. If Chicago wins, Tampa Bay will be home against the Rams.

Saturday night was the 31st playoff win for Brady (Joe Montana has 16). But Brady was disappointed his team couldn't finish drives.

"Washington had a lot of fight in them," Brady said. "We had opportunities to pull away and just couldn’t quite do it. [We] didn’t score quite enough points in the red area, so certainly a lot to improve on. But, great to get a win. We’ll figure out who we’re playing tomorrow and go from there.”

Brady sounded less than satisfied. Often, he sounds like that.

“You could win 100-0 and it’s going to be the same result in the end," Brady said. "You’d love to play great every game – I think it’s good to win and advance. If we don’t play well next week, we’re not going to be happy. [I’m] glad we won [and] glad we have another week of work. We’re going to go in there and try to do a much better job this week and get ready for whoever our opponent is – it’s going to be a good one. We’re going to have to go play great football.”

The Bucs lost offensive lineman Alex Kappa -- "It looks like a fracture," Arians said -- to an ankle injury.

It was one of Fournette's finest games as a Buc.

“It was cool, but that’s my job – it’s filling in for ‘Ro’ (Ronald Jones II)," Fournette said. "It’s been an up-and-down season for me. I think this year tested my [humility]. Coming from being the whole offense to being a minor piece, it’s off and on for me. [I] just kept faith and they believed in me. I’m happy where I’m at [and] I’m happy where I stand.”

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