As an overly emotional football fan who also gambles on the sport, it’s hard not to be reactionary. Tempering expectations is a skill few possess. The rational we like to think bigger picture and look at the football season in its entirety, as difficult as that may be.
For example, two Sundays ago, the Jaguars went into Los Angeles and beat the Chargers handily. After witnessing that outcome, many of us thought that not only would the Jags go on to beat Philadelphia the following week, but that the Chargers season was over.
Neither proved to be the case. On a dreadfully rainy afternoon, the Eagles covered the spread against Jacksonville and the Chargers returned to their normal selves, with a road win against their next opponent. On any given Sunday, one team can stymie another, prompting all of us to scratch our heads in disbelief. Remember when Dak Prescott injured his thumb in Week One and everyone thought the Dallas Cowboys season was over? Don’t look now but they’re currently 3-1.
What we look for are trends and substantive, perhaps troublesome, issues within a team’s style of play. That is, unfortunately, what I saw from the Buccaneers in Raymond James Stadium on Sunday night. They lost a game they were never in, right from the opening kickoff.
Blessed enough to attend the festivities in person, I witnessed firsthand what’s slowly becoming one of the league’s healthiest rivalries. Although they play in different conferences, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs have played three meaningful games in the last two years. The first came in 2020, where former Chief Tyreek Hill had himself a record-setting day. Not only did the Chiefs win that game relatively handily, the final score of 24-21 rather misleading, Hill had over 200 yards receiving and two touchdowns in the first quarter!
That would be the Buccaneers’ last loss of the season, inspiring them to win seven straight and face the Chiefs once again, in that same stadium, in Super Bowl LV. That evening, the Bucs did something no team had done to Patrick Mahomes since he’d become a starter in the league: ensure his team didn’t score a touchdown. The Buccaneers won that game 31-9.
Sunday night, Chiefs-Bucs III was far more reminiscent of the first matchup, with Patrick Mahomes doing whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, against a Buccaneers defense that once ranked first in the league. Sunday’s loss was so lopsided, the Buc’s run defense plummeted from being ranked first to outside the top ten. You know who’s ranks first now? The Kansas City Chiefs.
The 41-31 final score was no indication of how one-sided that game turned out to be. From the opening kick-off, which the Buccaneers fumbled, a tone was set. The Chiefs would retain possession and score two plays later. They never looked back. Despite the Buccaneers putting up 31 points, their normally steady defense was unable to fetter an otherworldly Patrick Mahomes, the GOAT’s heir apparent.
Former Chief Tyreek Hill was not there to amass yards like he did the first time these teams met but they didn’t need him. These Chiefs still have the best young quarterback in football, and the game’s best tight end, but they are very much different. They have evolved with new wide receivers to throw to and a considerably better defense.
The Chiefs are not the only team in the league to have bolstered their game from last year to this. The Bills look dangerous. The Miami Dolphins have reloaded. The Eagles remain undefeated. The Chargers continue to grow. A number of teams who look to compete this season have adjusted their rosters with renewed hope of being the last team standing.
What I saw from the Buccaneers was disconcerting for they continue to throw out the same formula only to see other teams are catching up. On Sunday, that formula proved beatable against a team clearly on a different trajectory.
After Super Bowl LV, I joked that the Buccaneers had cracked the Chiefs code. Turnabout was unfair play this Sunday as the Chiefs toyed with a Bucs team that looked uninspired. The Chiefs were literally and visually better in every aspect of the game.
The Chiefs ran the ball at will, averaging 5.5 yards a carry, while the Bucs tallied only three total yards on six carries. That is not a misprint.
At one point, the Chiefs were 9-of-11 on third down conversions, meaning the Bucs could not get them off the field. The Chiefs punted only once and that was a meaningless punt at the end of the game. While Brady put up an impressive stat line, including 39 completions to ten different receivers, it was all in an effort to catch up. It’s hard to wrestle the lead away from your opponent when you can’t stop them from scoring. Victory was the dangling carrot on a string the Buccaneers could never reach. The Chiefs hardly broke a sweat while the Bucs sweated the outcome from the opening minute.
It’s easy to overreact to a loss like that but I saw something considerably more disturbing. These Buccaneers trotted out the same thing they did two years ago, minus some integral pieces. No Rob Gronkowski hurts both their offensive rhythm and output. A makeshift offensive line hurts the run game. The Buccaneers now rank second to last in rushing yards. They cannot run the football. Defensively, a pass rush that dominated opposing offensives years ago seems a step slower. Chasing Patrick Mahomes can suck the wind out of anyone but the Buccaneers were uncharacteristically flat. They were beaten. Handily.
I may not be pressing the panic button yet, but my hand is hovering above it and I’m feeling trigger happy. This is a veteran team, that will make the playoffs in a relatively underwhelming NFC. The Bucs understand they just need to get into the post-season healthy and anything is possible. They have thirteen more weeks to fix these problems, which are many, and maximize what most believe will be Tom Brady’s last season.
Countless pundits have counted out the GOAT only to see him add another ring to his already impressive collection, but Sunday had a different feel. The Bucs faced a team that was infinitely more prepared, with a better game plan and better execution.
Fearing Hurricane Ian’s path, the Bucs relocated to South Florida to practice for the Chiefs game. Normally trips like those bring a team together. There was no indication of that as the Chiefs formed a whirlwind all their own. This was an opportunity for the Bucs to take the mind off of fans who had no electricity to go home to. Instead, the Bucs showed up with little electricity themselves.
The Bucs have three months to take the power back. Good teams grow, they get better, their intent to win a Super Bowl. The season is still early but I’m not convinced the Bucs have done any of this. If anything, they’re trending in the wrong direction.
Again, it’s not time to overreact or panic just yet. That is, until it happens again.