Don’t be fooled by that score; the game wasn’t that close. Even when the Bucs held a 10-7 lead, this never felt like a game they were going to win. Despite making it look respectable in the end, this was the first game of the season where the Bucs really looked like the team everyone thought they’d be this year.
A large part of that was the inevitability of Peyton Manning shredding the secondary. Held in check much of the first half, Manning seemed less like a quarterback being stymied and more like a general probing for weaknesses, weaknesses he exploited in a third quarter in which the Broncos scored 21 points and all but decided the game. If his receivers weren’t wide open, the coverage seemed to realize the ball was coming several seconds too late. Combine that with the return of 2011 Josh Freeman — he was missing receivers badly, and making bad decisions on top of that — and the Broncos defense stacking the box to stop Doug Martin, and it was a game the Bucs simply weren’t going to win, regardless of them cutting the lead to one score late.
And while it wasn’t necessarily an unexpected loss, it was a tough one, because as the Bucs were beginning their game, Seattle was pulling off a miracle to win theirs, further tightening their grip on the final wildcard spot. Not that I’ve been buying into the playoff hopes some have been holding out for the Bucs, but it’s looking more and more like whoever finishes second in the NFC North and NFC West will be the wildcards. The Bucs would have to run the table to even have a shot, and I’m not sure they’ve got that in them, not with games remaining at Atlanta and at New Orleans.
But let’s be honest here: who thought the Bucs would be 6-6 twelve games into the season? There were predictions they wouldn’t win four games this year, let alone six, and with two winnable home games against the Eagles and Rams coming it, it’s possible the Bucs could finish at .500 for the season. Probably not good enough for the playoffs this year, but 8-8 wouldn’t have me excited for this year. That’s just gravy. It’s next year that holds the promise. This is still a young team learning how to play together, and to take a step like this so soon can only mean good things for the future. This year is much more real than the 10-6 season Raheem Morris had a few years ago. That felt like a fluke. This feels like a foundation being built.
Which doesn’t mean I won’t grumble and gripe about efforts like today. I’m a fan, it’s what we do. But they’re growing pains more than cries of futility. It comes from actually expecting more than being resigned to less. And that’s a welcome change.