It was a small thing, but then again, football is often a game of many small things done right. This thing was the moment when, despite having been ready to concede the game for most of the previous two quarters, I was certain the Bucs were going to win this game. It came during their furious final drive of regulation, after Josh Freeman had hit Vincent Jackson for a first down with a little over twenty seconds to go. Jackson jumped up, tossed the ball to the official, and sprinted to get in formation for the next play, which had to be a spike to kill the clock. And practically the entire Bucs’ offense was already there to meet him. Only two or three seconds ran off the clock because the team knew the situation, knew what they had to do, knew they had no time to waste. That’s the kind of discipline that pulls out wins like the one the Bucs got today.
It was also the kind of discipline that was sorely lacking once the Bucs jumped out to a 10-0 lead. Then Freeman single-handedly got the Panthers and their crowd back into the game with an ill-advised pass on third down in field goal range, a pass that was intercepted and run back for a touchdown. And that seemed to flip the On switch for Carolina. Panthers receivers only had to run a few yards down the field and cut sharply over the middle to get wide open. The Bucs’ offense happily chipped in by seeming to forget it had Doug Martin and mostly becoming Freeman spraying the ball all over the place. Then, when they finally put a drive together and appeared on the verge of scoring, it was ruled that Martin fumbled at the goal line (notice I saw “was ruled,” because he clearly scored before fumbling). Carolina promptly scored again, and 10-0 had become 21-10 it looked like the ride was going to be over.
And then Freeman, Jackson and Martin stole Cam Newton’s schtick and each turned into Superman. The throw he made on the touchdown to Jackson was an absolute laser, an amazing throw in a drive full of clutch throws, most of which seemed to go to Jackson. Then in overtime, Martin torched a clearly tired and mentally defeated Panther’s defense. The entire extra period felt like a foregone conclusion. There wasn’t going to be a field goal; the Bucs were going to go down, get a touchdown, and send everybody home.
And that sense of certainty began with that hustle play near the end of the game. Gone is the sloppy, disorganized team from last year that would have found a way to lose this game. If Greg Schiano has done nothing else, he’s molded a team that never gives up. And that’s helped them reel of four straight wins and put themselves right in the thick of the playoff chase. Next week comes the real test: the Atlanta Falcons, who suddenly look incredibly beatable. But hell, even if the Bucs lose, 6-5 at this point in the season would be so far beyond expectations, I wouldn’t lose a wink over it.
Okay, maybe a wink or two.