It’s hard to read a lot into a game against a team that really has no reason to play hard, despite the Atlanta Falcons’ assurances they’d be trying to win. They kept their starters in for the duration, but I have a hard time believing they were really giving it their all, what with no chance to improve their playoff seeding. Still, the Bucs went on the road and beat one of the best teams in the NFL, ending their five-game losing streak and closing out 2012 on a winning note.
And that’s the significance of the win. Regardless of how much effort the Falcons put forth, the Bucs went out and did what they had to do to beat them. Doug Martin looked like a Rookie of the Year candidate again. Josh Freeman didn’t look like a junkyard fire. The pass defense actually stepped up and avoided setting the mark for most single season passing yards allowed in league history. This wasn’t a game so much about the opponent’s attitude as it was the Bucs’ attitude, and ending on this kind of note can only mean good things. First, it avoids double-digit losses. Sure, 7-9 is still below .500, but there’s something about only seeing one number after the dash instead of two. As a Bucs fan, I lived through plenty of those kinds of seasons back in the 80s and early 90s, and you can’t underestimate the psychological impact of 9 losses instead of 10.
Second, having the last time you took the field be a win instead of a loss can’t be overstated. It’s an up note, a promise, and it’ll make cleaning out the lockers tomorrow feel a little more hopeful for a lot of guys. There are some misguided Bucs fans bemoaning the fact that this win cost the Bucs a better draft pick, but being able to walk off as winners will do more good than being a slot or two higher in the crap shoot that is the draft. Besides, our two best rookies came at the end of the first and the beginning of the second. A top ten pick is no guarantee of quality.
Overall, I don’t think the Bucs were as good as they looked during their four-game winning streak, nor as bad as they looked during the five-game losing streak. Those streaks sort of raised and lowered expectations outside of reasonable perspective. Had it been a roller coaster season, winning one, losing two, winning two, losing one, 7-9 probably wouldn’t seem like such a disappointment to some. The Bucs won some they should have lost, and lost some they should have won, but in the end, finished up as the kind of team they probably were all along, playoff flirtation aside: a developing team still a year or two and some players away from being a contender. This was the beginning of the process, not the culmination, and anyone upset that they didn’t see instant results is only fooling themselves. The ship isn’t leaking anymore, and if the sails aren’t quite catching enough wind yet, at least the captain knows where he’s going.
Here’s to 2013. May the cannons roar.