This won't get it done in January, but it's good enough now for the Bucs
They have stars, so they have hope. Three months into an NFL season, that is the most reassuring thing you can say about this uncertain football team.

They do not have good health, they do not have great depth, they do not have the precision we saw at the end of 2020, and if you check their birth certificates, they do not have time on their side. But the Bucs do have stars.

So you can put another win under their names. The Bucs beat the Colts 38-31 on Sunday because Shaquil Barrett is an elite pass rusher, Leonard Fournette is a top running back, Rob Gronkowski is a physical marvel and, at 44, Tom Brady is still the most Tom Brady-like quarterback on the field.

Players of that stature can hide all manner of sins, and so it is that Tampa Bay has won four games this season by seven points or fewer, which is already more than all last season. The Bucs are 4-0 in close games this season, which no other team in the league can claim.

Some of that surely involves good fortune (see: Nyheim Hines muff a perfectly simple punt return for Indianapolis), but it is also a sign of a team that has pride, confidence and experience.

And that is what is helping the Bucs survive right now. There were long stretches during Sunday's game when they were playing with a third-string left guard (Nick Leverett), a 31-year-old cornerback signed off the street in October to wear his seventh NFL uniform (Pierre Desir), and a 30-year-old linebacker who usually sees snaps only on special teams (Kevin Minter).

It has been that way for much of the season with the Bucs having to juggle the lineup and scour the waiver wire with Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Jason Pierre-Paul, Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Antoine Winfield Jr. and Lavonte David missing multiple games with injuries.

"We played six minutes and lost four starters in this game," coach Bruce Arians said. "You say, 'Okay, this one is going to be a long one.' "

The point is that the Bucs are surviving and thriving simultaneously. The defense still has issues in the secondary. It has given up 29 points or more in five of the Bucs' 11 games, and it made Carson Wentz look like a Hall of Famer at times Sunday.

But when Barrett got a strip sack that halted a Colts drive in the third quarter, it completely changed the tenor of the game. Forty-eight seconds later, Gronkowski bulldozed his way through several tacklers on a key third-down play. And four plays later, Fournette scored one of his four touchdowns to cut the Indianapolis lead to 24-21.

And by game's end, the Bucs had put more cushion into their division lead and kept in close proximity of the other top teams in the NFC. "There was a lot of gritting of teeth at halftime," Arians said. "Give credit to (the Colts), they were making plays. We needed to make something happen. Obviously, Shaq's fumble, and then turnovers and turnovers, and touchdowns off of turnovers, and we finally got the lead."

Now, advanced metrics will tell you that a team that wins too many close games is likely heading toward a fall, and I would normally agree with that argument. But there are extenuating circumstance with these Bucs. They aren't winning by fluke; they are winning by perseverance. There are times when you would swear they are winning by sheer will.

Still, if the playoffs began today, this version of the Bucs would be in trouble. The secondary does not have enough talent to play man to man, and good quarterbacks will feast on a zone defense that seems to have miscommunications on nearly every drive. And the offensive line needs Ali Marpet back at left guard to ensure not just Brady's safety but his peace of mind.

The Bucs have six weeks remaining to get healthy and get back to playing the type of football that carried them through the last postseason. In the meantime, they have enough elite players to carry them on these Sunday afternoons when the scoreboard is tight and the clock is ticking. Arians was asked afterward about the mindset of quarterbacks such as Brady in moments like this.

"They all have the same trait: They hate losing," Arians said. "I don't care what it is, they're going to do whatever it takes to prepare to win, and they're going to will themselves on the rest of the huddle. They all have it, and Tom surely has it." For now, that will do.

John Romano, The Tampa Times, published 29 November 2021