ATLANTA — With rare exception, this season's model of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has wavered between overwhelmed, overmatched and exhausted. The team dropped its regular-season finale to the Atlanta Falcons, 30-17, to finish the season with a losing record and far more questions than answers.
But when you play in the woeful NFC South, a losing record can still get you into the playoffs. And so even though, by all reasonable measures of good and decent and aesthetically pleasing football, these Buccaneers (8-9) ought to be stumbling into the offseason, they’re instead returning to Tampa Bay to prepare for a home playoff game over wild-card weekend.
The NFL’s playoff framework that permits even dog-ugly division winners to enjoy the luxury of a home game is a question for another day. For now, there is this: Tom Brady is back in the playoffs, and that means there’s always the possibility for Brady-led chaos.
“I was a part of teams that were really good and didn’t make it very far, and I’ve been a part of teams that were fighting really hard and made it a long way,” Brady said after Sunday's game. “The team that wins is the one that plays the best that day, not the one with the best record or home field.”
Even amid what was, by any statistical or visual measure, an utterly ordinary Brady game, Sunday brought two more records for his warehouse full of them. Although he played only five series, all in the first half, he completed enough passes to set the NFL full-season marks for both attempts (passing Matthew Stafford in 2012) and completions (passing his own record set last season). Shortly after securing both records, Brady left the game, turning the reins over to Blaine Gabbert and Kyle Trask, who combined to produce only a touchdown over the final two-plus quarters.
“I was trying to play as long as I could,” Brady said afterward. “But we have so many injuries, so many people going in and out. I wanted to give other people opportunities. I’ve played a lot this year.”
Brady finished the game 13 of 17 for 84 yards and a touchdown while throwing to a depleted receiving corps and behind a patchwork offensive line. He was the first one off the field after the game clock hit zero, racing alone through the tunnels beneath Mercedes-Benz Stadium as the Falcons’ celebratory cannons sounded. If he was in soak-it-in mode, a man who’s looking at only a handful of games left one way or another, he sure didn’t seem like it.
“I haven’t thought about any of that,” he said, brushing off a question of whether this could be his last run. “I’m going to be the best I can be for my teammates every day. I’ll come to work like a professional.”
The odds against Brady snaring another ring are long indeed. Tampa Bay's odds are 25-1 to win the Super Bowl — the same odds as Green Bay, who hadn’t even qualified for the postseason when the Bucs walked off the field Sunday afternoon. The Bucs are battered, with everyone from center Robert Hainsey to tight end Kyle Rudolph to safety Keanu Neal to receiver Russell Gage suffering some form of injury Sunday, and multiple other Bucs held out to give them an extra week to heal. Not exactly a fit and fiery crew ready for the playoffs.
“It’s a big challenge. Every team is going to be a challenge,” Brady said. “Close won’t be good enough going forward for anybody.”
The 2022 Buccaneers are just the sixth team to make the playoffs with a losing record. Notwithstanding the 1982 Browns and Lions, who worked their way in via the strike-altered season, two more recent losing teams to reach the playoffs have done some damage. The 2010 Seahawks (7-9) upset the New Orleans Saints in the opening weekend — that was the Beast Quake game — and the 2014 Panthers (7-8-1) took advantage of an injury-ravaged Arizona team to advance to the divisional round as well. The 2020 Washington franchise (7-9) — then known as The Football Team — rode emergency quarterback Taylor Heinicke as hard as it could, but fell short to Brady and these same Bucs.
This year, Tampa Bay, seeded fourth, will play Dallas, the top-seeded wild card team, in the first round. Here's a statistical tidbit that will get plenty of play this week: The Cowboys have never beaten Tom Brady. Not once. Brady is 7-0 against Dallas in his career, including a 19-3 waxing in this season's opening weekend.
Plus, Brady knows a thing or two about big comebacks; he leads the NFL in career fourth-quarter comebacks. (The next-closest current playoff quarterback: Kirk Cousins, with 22 to Brady’s 46). Brady has made a career of proving doubters wrong; nobody on the planet knows that better than the franchise he faced Sunday.
“He continues to defy time,” Tampa Bay head coach Todd Bowles said after the game. “Father Time is having a heck of a time with Brady.”
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.