Recent NFL history has shown us champions that have overcome adversity and gone on deep playoff runs. Led by Tampa Bay, several teams this year are looking to parlay their seasonal setbacks into Super Bowl success.
They charged into the visiting team’s locker room inside Ford Field wearing sweat-soaked uniforms and smiles that couldn’t be stripped off their faces. Coach Bruce Arians proudly scanned the mass of players celebrating wildly — as a 47-7 win over Detroit in Week 16 had given the Tampa Bay Buccaneers their first playoff appearance in 13 years — then pushed to the middle of the room to congratulate them. Inside linebacker LaVonte David stepped forward a few moments later. As the longest-tenured player on this current roster, the nine-year veteran knew exactly what that moment meant to the organization.
David had hugged another long-time Bucs player, defensive end William Gholston, as soon as they departed the field. David’s cell phone also had been chiming constantly inside his locker stall, with congratulatory text messages from former teammates like Gerald McCoy waiting to be read. David couldn’t even finish addressing the team with a quick breakdown before wide receiver Mike Evans jumped on top of him and yelled, “We love you, Lavonte, but we’re in!” It was the type of chaotic scene that only a few players in that room had ever experienced before.
Saturday’s Super Wild Card Schedule
Sunday’s Super Wild Card Schedule
“It’s an amazing feeling,” David said after that game on Dec. 26. “I’m blessed to be a part of it. Now the question is, ‘What’s next?’ We have to keep on climbing and keep on grinding. We’ve got a chance to get in the tournament, so now it’s about what you’re going to do while you’re there.”
That is a question 14 teams will be trying to answer as this year’s expanded NFL postseason ensues. It’s been the most challenging season in league history — thanks to the presence of COVID-19 — but today the only thing that matters to all those playoff participants is how they can win Super Bowl LV. For a team like Tampa Bay, which is playing as well as it has all season, the real task is finding a way to sustain the momentum it has built over the last month. The Bucs have won four straight games, and they want to generate the kind of unexpected playoff run that has stoked so many champions over the past couple of decades.
As much as we ruminate on which teams will earn byes or garner home-field advantage, the reality is that winning a Super Bowl involves one thing: Heating up at the right time. A team can look completely uninspiring at certain points in the regular season, even in early December, and then reinvent itself in the postseason in ways that nobody could’ve imagined.
It’s easy to identify the dominant teams in this year’s playoffs, studs like the Chiefs, Packers, Saints and Bills. It’s harder to pick out who’s going to be the next version of the 2007 and 2011 Giants, the 2010 Packers, the 2012 Ravens or the 2015 Broncos — surprising champions of the last 15 years that found a way to weather adversity and ultimately turn hard times into helpful motivation.
“What happens every year is December football,” said Ravens executive vice president Ozzie Newsome, who served as the general manager for two Baltimore teams that won Super Bowls. “A team has gone through enough to understand who they are. Defense plays to offense. Offense plays to defense. And special teams plays to both. The injuries you had that affected your depth earlier in the year are behind you. You’re no longer figuring out who you are because you have an identity. And you go with that.”
There are an assortment of teams that potentially fit that description this year. The Ravens have gone from being 6-5 and battling a COVID-19 outbreak to winning five straight games, with quarterback Lamar Jackson saying, “We still have things that we want to finish. It’s just the beginning for us, to be honest with you.”
The Steelers (who won the AFC North despite losing four of their last five games), Browns (who earned their first postseason spot since 2002 but will have to overcome even more adversity in the Wildcard Round to advance) and Bears (who made the playoffs despite wallowing at 5-7 at one point and enduring some well-documented quarterback issues) also could be intriguing participants.
However, no team feels more capable of making a long playoff run after a mystifying season than the 11-5 Buccaneers, who hold the fifth seed in the NFC and face fourth-seeded Washington (7-9) on Saturday night in the Super Wild Card Round.
The hype surrounding Tampa Bay started as soon as quarterback Tom Brady left the New England Patriots and surprisingly signed with the Buccaneers in March. Adding a player who won six Super Bowls and played in three others tends to have that effect. However, the Bucs have endured their share of growing pains, despite having a roster brimming with Pro Bowl-caliber talent. Their struggles peaked before their bye week, when they lost three of four games, including a 38-3 prime-time loss to New Orleans.
At the time, Tampa Bay appeared to be the ultimate conundrum. Talking heads skewered the team for its lack of imagination on offense, an inability to slow down opponents on defense and a penchant for looking its worst in front of nationally televised audiences. Even Arians chided skeptics for all the early hoopla, saying nobody wins a Super Bowl solely by amassing a roster of big names. It takes practice and patience and the Bucs are starting to feel as if a little adversity didn’t hurt, either.
Timely scheduling has helped — all four of Tampa Bay’s wins to close the regular season came against teams with losing records — but the numbers are impressive. The Bucs averaged 37 points and committed only one turnover over the last four weeks.
“I think we’re starting to see the fruits of our labor,” said Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin. “I think we’re getting the right play calls at the right time and we’re executing so much better. At the end of the day, when the ball is in the air, guys are just making plays. I think you are starting to see just how much talent we really have. And that’s going to be really big for us moving forward.”
“We’re playing better,” added Brady, who’s completed 74.6 percent of his passes during this winning streak while tossing 12 touchdowns and only one interception. “We’re playing more consistently and it’s been great to see. There’s a lot of guys who have worked hard to get to this point … There’s going to be a bunch of teams that make it this year and there’s only going to be one team that ends up happy. The more time we can spend improving as a team, [the more] improving as a quarterback that I need to do, the better it is for us.”
The Bucs are the perfect example of why it’s so hard to see a playoff run coming. They’ve had moments when they’ve looked amazing, such as when they dominated Green Bay, the top seed in this year’s NFC race, by a score of 38-10 on Oct. 18. They’ve also had days like they had against the Saints, or when a highly anticipated matchup with the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs started with Kansas City storming out to a 17-0 lead (and wide receiver Tyreek Hill amassing 203 receiving yards in the first quarter). There have been ample afternoons when people were wondering which Bucs team would show up.
That isn’t much different than other surprising teams that have gone on to win championships. The 2010 Packers wound up with 16 players on injured reserve, but as former Green Bay wide receiver Donald Driver said, “We felt like we were dogs who had to fight and claw and scratch for everything we got.”
The 2012 Ravens lost four of their last five games heading into that postseason. The 2015 Broncos literally patched together a serviceable offense — backup Brock Osweiler replaced an injured Peyton Manning in seven games that season and the two combined for 19 touchdown passes and 23 interceptions — but that was more than enough to help a stifling defense.
The New York Giants actually won two Super Bowls under head coach Tom Coughlin with teams that struggled mightily at times during the regular season (in 2007 and 2011).
“The Manning brand name is so big, but people forget that Eli threw a ton of interceptions in 2007,” said former Giants executive Marc Ross, who now works as an analyst for NFL Network. “The big thing that he did in the playoffs was not turn the ball over (Manning threw 20 interceptions in the regular season and only one in four postseason games). And then we had other elements of the team that dominated.
“The teams that get hot usually have certain parts of their teams that can take over. We had the No. 1 pick in the draft (Manning in 2004). We had a great defensive line (in both championship years) and we had some great receivers in 2011. It’s not just enough to have chemistry. You have to have the players, too.”
The Buccaneers don’t lack for talent. Before Brady arrived in March, they already had two dangerous wide receivers in Evans and Godwin and a strong front seven on defense. Arians and general manager Jason Licht became even more aggressive later in the year, as they signed tight end Rob Gronkowski (out of retirement), running back Leonard Fournette (after Jacksonville waived him) and wide receiver Antonio Brown (who’d been out of the league because of off-field problems). Nobody could say the Bucs didn’t look good coming off the bus this year.
The real problem for this team has been one that Arians has tried to address: Adjustments. There have been endless debates about how the Bucs have used Brady, whether the quarterback has struggled to embrace the coach’s offensive philosophies of throwing downfield or the coach has been too reluctant to utilize the shorter, timing-based patterns that have been Brady’s meal ticket. There also have been confounding moments when talented offensive players disappear within the flow the game, with running back Ronald Jones being a prime example of that.
Those issues haven’t been popping up as much lately. Some of that may be the result of players feeling the urgency that comes with the postseason. Arians could sense the heightened focus at practice during the week of Christmas.
“You could feel the want and desire of Lavonte [David] and those guys, but you could feel the Bradys, the Gronks (Rob Gronkowski) and A.B. (Antonio Brown) also. [Ndamukong] Suh turning it up a notch, and those guys felt it,” Arians said. “They know, ‘Hey, these guys [have] been there and done it. I’m with you.’ I think it’s an invaluable thing to have these veteran guys who have been there and done it. It’s one thing for a coach (to say), ‘Hey, I’ve got a couple of rings.’ But, it isn’t like Tom, Gronk and guys that are in the trenches with them. It’s different when you’re in that locker room.”
Arians hasn’t solely relied on those veterans to push his team forward. After the Bucs lost to the Chiefs, the head coach told NFL Network’s Michael Silver that Brady was running the offense. It wasn’t clear when Arians had made that decision but it was apparent that Brady would have far more sway as the season continued. It also was the type of decision that can result in huge gains if it plays out correctly.
That 2007 Giants team wouldn’t have upset the undefeated New England Patriots if Coughlin hadn’t listened to those around him. His players pestered him to loosen some of his rigid rules and be less of a dictator going into that season. His own wife acknowledged that he could benefit from letting his team see more of his personality. The end result was a warmer, kinder Coughlin, a guy who arranged more team-building events and gained more faith from his players.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh faced a similar dilemma in 2012. A mid-year team meeting turned heated when a handful of prominent players complained about too many padded practices, the use of the team’s no-huddle offense and even Harbaugh’s moodiness. Those conversations could’ve turned into a mutiny. Instead, Harbaugh earned serious respect for his ability to both listen and apply some of what his team was saying.
What Harbaugh realized in that meeting was that his veterans were taking control of that team. The Ravens already had held a players-only meeting a week earlier, where there was just as much candid conversation about what type of squad they expected to be.
“A lot of players stood up and talked about what we had to do to get better,” said former Ravens safety Bernard Pollard. “And when we walked out of there, we said we were going to win the Super Bowl. After that point, everything we did — whether it was how we practiced, how we ate, whatever — was geared toward that. We weren’t going to be stopped.”
The Ravens also benefitted from Harbaugh’s decision to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and give play-calling duties to assistant Jim Caldwell. The Ravens had a quarterback in Joe Flacco who could be just as erratic as Eli Manning had been for the Giants. Thanks to Harbaugh’s coaching change, Flacco went on to have the best postseason of his life. The quarterback didn’t throw a single interception in that postseason while producing 11 touchdown passes.
The highlight of that Baltimore championship run was the 70-yard touchdown pass Flacco threw to Jacoby Jones in the final seconds of regulation during a 38-35 double-overtime win over the top-seeded Broncos in the Divisional Round. Pollard was sitting on the bench before that heave, too anxious to watch the final seconds. Looking back on that moment, he saw how all the adversity the Ravens faced that year kept them fighting.
“All those trials and tribulations we went through earlier in that year made a difference,” Pollard said. “When you have 53 guys who’ve all been through something together, it’s hard to beat.”
If there’s anybody in the NFL who knows a thing or two about such postseason magic, it’s Brady. He won his first championship, in 2001, after an official used the “Tuck Rule” to overturn a game-wrecking fumble in a Divisional playoff win over the Raiders. Brady’s last championship, in 2018, had plenty to do with Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford lining up offsides when Brady tossed what would’ve been a game-ending interception late in the Patriots’ AFC Championship win. As brilliant as Brady has been throughout his career, he knows a break or two doesn’t hurt along the way.
Brady also understands the mindset you need at this time of year, as do many of his teammates who’ve played deep into the postseason on other teams.
“(Our) talent is off the charts,” said Fournette, who was on the Jacksonville Jaguars when they lost to Brady and New England in the AFC Championship Game in 2017. “This time around I’m not going against Tom Brady — he’s on my team — so that’s a good thing. Second of all, I just think a lot of guys on our team have been to the playoffs and we know what it takes. You have to lock in. Not saying it’s not possible, but you have to be perfect in practices now. The little things usually you get by with during the season, you can’t really do. You have to run your routes at depth [and] block your guys. Everything is on the line.”
Added Brady: “I’ve got a lot of guys on this team this year that have made a great commitment to one another and we’re committed to being the best that we can be. I know at different times we haven’t played the way that we’re capable of playing, [but] when we do play the way we’re capable of playing, we’re pretty tough to beat. We’ve got to figure out how to do it more consistently in the best possible way.”
Of course, every team in the NFL is chasing a similar goal. They all want to be at their best for as long as possible, largely because they all know how rare these opportunities can be. This is the first year in league history where homefield advantage won’t mean all that much — at least as far as crowd noise is concerned — and only one team in each conference has the benefit of taking a week off during the Wild Card Round. This is the time when teams find out how much all that hard work that went into the regular season will pay off in the end.
That’s one reason why Arians decided to play his starters in Sunday’s season finale against Atlanta. Even though a victory wouldn’t alter the Bucs’ seeding much, Arians wanted his team to reach 11 wins. The 44-27 victory was bittersweet because Evans hyperextended his left knee in the first half (the injury didn’t result in any structural damage). However, Brady threw for 399 yards and both Brown (138 yards, two touchdowns) and Godwin (133 yards, two touchdowns) dominated.
That success spoke to what Newsome has long believed about teams that heat up going into the postseason: “When the engine is running,” Newsome said. “You don’t shut it off.”
“We know how to win,” Arians said. “That’s what (Brady and Gronkowski) brought — ‘We know how to win’ (attitude). Tom’s done it a couple times this year where we’ve gotten down and he’s brought us back. I like where we’re at now in the second year — I think we’ll continue to build. Anything can happen. I’ve been a six seed and gone all the way to the Super Bowl (in XLIII as offensive coordinator for the Steelers) and won it right here in this stadium (Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium). Anything’s possible.”
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