Quick-Starting Bucs Demolish Lions, Return to the Playoffs
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally started fast – very fast, in fact – and they finished exactly where they wanted to be. The Buccaneers scored touchdowns on six of their first seven drives, five in the first half for a 34-0 halftime lead, on their way to a blowout 47-7 win over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Sunday. The victory improved Tampa Bay's record to 10-5, including 6-2 on the road to tie a team record, and most importantly clinched the franchise's first playoff berth since 2007.

Seeking that fast start and to get the playoff spot secured as quickly as possible, Head Coach Bruce Arians deviated from his usual approach and took the ball when the Buccaneers won the coin toss. "It was exactly what we talked about," said Arians. "We wanted to go out and get a good start. We've deferred the kickoff most of this year [but] we decided to put our offense out there and they delivered. It was exactly what we needed.

"It's just the beginning. Our goal when we started out, especially in this year, was just to get in the dance. Now it's to win 11 games and see where we stand and where we're going and know who we're playing. I'm really proud of our guys. Our guys did a great job of preparing. You could feel this was a playoff practice week."

Since that playoff drought has lasted longer than the Tampa Bay tenure of any player on the current roster, a number of long-time Bucs are getting their first shot at the postseason. It's been a long wait for the likes of ILB Lavonte David, WR Mike Evans and DL William Gholston.

"Oh man, it's amazing, a great feeling," said David, who was drafted in 2012 and is the longest-tenured Buccaneer. "It's a great feeling and everybody knew what it took. Coach made an emphasis on it – it's not going to be given, we have to go out and take what we want. And we did it. After the game, me and Will hugged each other. He's one of the guys that was here next to me [for a long time]. Mike, in the locker room, I broke it down to Mike, just gave him a big hug. A lot of guys, the staff, everybody [were saying], 'It's about time, it's about time.' They're proud of me. They're happy for me. It's a great feeling."

The Buccaneers' 40-point winning margin represented the second-most lopsided victory in franchise history after a 41-0 blanking of the Chicago Bears on September 10, 2000. The Bucs' 47 points were their fifth-most in a regular-season game and they finished with 588 yards of net offense, the most in any game in team annals. The previous record was 476 against Cincinnati on Oct. 28, 2018. The Bucs finished with 402 more yards than their opposition, the largest differential in a game in team history, and were able to put the game out of reach early.

"This week we felt like we could attack, so we took the football if we won the coin toss, and our guys went out and went right down the field," said Arians. "It was something that we needed desperately just so people would stop talking about it. We're winning but we're not winning nice enough. Hopefully today was nice enough."

Indeed, by many measures, the first two quarters were the most dominant half in franchise history. Tom Brady threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns as the Bucs' set a franchise record for any half with 410 net yards of offense. Brady's yards were the most in a half in team history, as well, and the Bucs' 34 points is the second-most it has scored in any half, after a 35-point second-half run at Oakland on Nov. 4, 2012. The Bucs' 34-point lead was the biggest one it has ever taken into a halftime.

"We played pretty good in the first half today," said Brady, who took a seat at halftime for Blaine Gabbert with the game under control. "We played pretty good the whole game; Blaine went in and did a great job. It was great to see. A lot of guys made plays. Mike made a bunch, Chris [Godwin] made a bunch, AB [Antonio Brown] made a bunch, Tyler [Johnson] made one, Ke'Shawn [Vaughn] made some, Leonard [Fournette] did. It was just a great effort by the whole team.

"I'm just happy for all of us to win the game. It's great to be 10-5. We were 7-5 at the bye week and have won three straight and that's been really important. We've got another big win next week against Atlanta and then whatever happens after that is bonus for all of us."

That was more than enough against the Lions, who were out of playoff contention and short-handed both on the field and on the sideline. Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow, starting right tackle Tyrell Crosby, leading tackler Jamie Collins and top wideout Kenny Golladay were all inactive for the game and quarterback Matthew Stafford, already playing through rib and thumb injuries, left after one series after injuring his ankle and did not return.

Meanwhile, Interim Head Coach Darrell Bevell and four of his assistant coaches were all quarantined for COVID-19 exposure, leaving Wide Receivers Coach Robert Prince to call the plays on offense and Head Coach Assistant/Research & Analysis Evan Rothstein coordinating the defense.

"Obviously it didn't matter as long as we win, but the goal was to dominate," said Evans. "They were a depleted team, no coaches … we did want to come out and dominate and we did that and it just felt great. Everybody got to play and get the ball on offense, guys got to get in on defense and make players. It was just a great moment."

Gabbert came in to start the second half but the Bucs didn't exactly slow down on the scoreboard. Inside linebacker Lavonte David stripped the ball from rookie RB D'Andre Swift on the first play of the half and Gabbert threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to TE Rob Gronkowski on the next snap to make it 40-0. About the only thing not working for the Buccaneers on Sunday was the extra point, with K Ryan Succop misfiring on two of them. Succop also missed on a 42-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, snapping his streak of 21 straight successful three-pointers, the second-longest run in team history.

Detroit didn't score until six minutes into the second half when RB/WR Jamal Agnew returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown. It was the first punt return for a score the Buccaneers have allowed since Devin Hester scored on a 68-yard runback at Atlanta on Sept. 18, 2014.

Brady completed 22 of his 27 passes on his way to those 348 yards and four touchdowns, and he was not intercepted, finishing with a perfect 158.3 passer rating in a game for the third time in his career and the first time since 2010. He is just the second Buc passer to finish a game with a perfect rating (minimum of 20 pass attempts), joining Craig Erickson, who did it against Indianapolis on Sept. 11, 1994. Gabbert completed nine of 15 passes for 143 yards, two touchdowns and a 131.4 passer rating.

Brady was playing in his 300th career regular-season game in the same city in which he made his NFL debut in his 2000 rookie season. His efforts were not needed in the second half, but over his last four quarters of play, including the second half against Atlanta last Sunday, Brady has thrown for 668 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.

"When you play a half like we did las tweak and then a half like we did this week, you start stacking those together and it's pretty tough," said Arians. "We're going to be a pretty tough out. I just like the way we're playing football right now in all three phases, though Ryan did struggle today."

Both Evans and Rob Gronkowski scored twice, while Godwin and Brown each caught one touchdown pass and Fournette scored his third rushing touchdown in the last two weeks. As a team, the Buccaneers threw six touchdown passes in a game for the first time in franchise history.

Both Brady and Gabbert looked frequently in the direction of Evans, who was targeted 12 times and finished with 10 receptions for 181 yards and those two touchdowns. That outburst, coupled with the 110 yards he recorded on six catches last week in Atlanta pushed Evans' 2020 season total to 960 yards. With one game to play in the regular season, Evans needs just 40 more yards to become the first player in NFL history to open his career with seven straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

Arians didn't deny that the Buccaneers made a special effort to get the ball to Evans so he could chase that record and Evans appreciated that it meant something to his coaches and teammates.

"They care about me and I appreciate that a lot," said Evans, who broke his own Buccaneers single-season record with his 13th touchdown catch. "All my teammates, they definitely want me to get the record. To be the first in NFL history is a huge accomplishment. I'm just appreciative that they care about me like that and they want me to get it. Hopefully next week I can get it."

Tampa Bay's defense was just as dominant, holding the Lions to 186 yards, 56 of them on one late fourth-quarter drive on which the Bucs were playing a number of defensive reserve. In addition to David's forced fumble, first-year cornerback Herb Miller picked off the Lions third quarterback of the day, David Blough late in regulation. Those were the only two turnovers in the game as Tampa Bay has not turned the ball over once during its current three-game winning streak.

"It's important," said Brady. "Turnover margin is one of the great stats in football. Anytime you don't turn it over you're making the other team score on a long field. If every drive ends in a kick, I think you're doing pretty good on offense. I try not to turn it over; I know I've turned it over a few too many times this year. I'd like to turn it over never. It always feels good when you come out of a game without turnovers.

ILB Devin White led the defense with 10 tackles, a sack, three quarterback hits and two tackles for loss. His sack was his fourth in the last two weeks and his ninth of the season. Gholston, Anthony Nelson and Jeremiah Ledbetter also had one sack each and OLB Jason Pierre-Paul broke up two passes, one of which was nearly his third interception of the season.

The Buccaneers will conclude their regular season with a home game next Sunday against the Falcons. While they are already in the playoffs, a win in that game would move them up to the fifth-overall seed regardless of what happens in all the other games.

Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 27 December 2020