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It had been 29 days since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had won a football game, and that drought had made this team thirst for even a small drink of success.
“We lost two in a row, and for a team of this caliber, that’s not acceptable,” receiver Mike Evans said. “So we wanted to win very badly and we came out and showed that.”
New York Giants 10.
And before anyone suggests this was a routine whipping of an unremarkable opponent, take that up with Coach Bruce Arians and Tom Brady, with Evans and Rob Gronkowski because they’re not having it.
“Thanksgiving turkey’s going to taste a hell of a lot better,” Arians said. “I don’t drink wine, but if I did, that’d taste pretty good too.”
Victory makes everything taste better, and when you’re a defending Super Bowl champion that has lost consecutive games, victory becomes like oxygen. Not enough and you’re gonna die, as Sweet says.
“It was a big win,” Gronkowski said. “It was a great team win. Everyone contributed, from the top to the bottom, from the offensive side to the defensive side.”
This reaction all seems kind of strange, right?
The Bucs did indeed win the Super Bowl last season. They reached the pinnacle of the sport. And Monday, they acted every bit as satisfied they finally got back in the win column as they would have if they’d just accomplished something much more meaningful.
So what’s gives with the feel-good talk when, on the surface, this game didn’t decide anything notable?
Well, maybe for the Bucs it might not have been just about the accomplishment but the relief the victory brought.
That’s how it is for defending Super Bowl champions that are given no benefit of the doubt when measuring them against high expectations. Fall anywhere below those expectations, and things can start to feel borderline oppressive.
It’s not like that for other teams.
The Giants, for example, don’t face that kind of pressure because everyone knows what they are — a middling team on good days and a bad team the rest of the time. So failure doesn’t seem quite as “unacceptable” for the Giants as Evans said it is for Tampa Bay.
And, remember, we’re talking about a team that plays in the New York pressure cooker. But the Giants are winding their way toward another disappointing season, and everyone kind of gets that.
The Bucs must aim higher. Must climb higher.
That makes every game a referendum for them.
“Every day that goes by is closer to the end of the season, and every game becomes more important because there’s fewer of them,” Brady said. “And you don’t get any back. So we’re at a decent point, but we can play a lot better than we played. Seven and three after 10 games, there’s a lot to learn from and hoping our best football is ahead of us.”
That being the situation in Tampa, a victory offers a chance to be happy again.
The team can celebrate Evans becoming the club’s all-time TD leader. The Big Man interception by Steve McLendon can be celebrated as the lifetime achievement it is because it’s the first for the 35-year-old defensive lineman. Even a rare Brady run that isn’t a QB sneak can offer comic relief.
Brady was asked about his 10-yard run in the first half.
“Eleven-yard run,” the 44-year-old immediately corrected.
Yeah, it was indeed a 10-yarder.
Winning allows for this levity on a team that was tightening up in the last week or so.
And winning allows for the possibility that better things are on the way. That’s how it is with the Bucs because they can rightly hope their best football is just ahead as key players get healthy
On defense, the team got cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting back in the lineup for the first time since the season opener when he dislocated an elbow. And Murphy-Bunting celebrated his return with seven tackles and a forced fumble.
“Ah, man, you could see the difference …,” defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said. “He’s one of our starters and you can tell why.”
Gronkowski was also able to play a full game for the first time since Week 3, and the boost to the offense was obvious beyond his 6 catches for 71 yards.
Gronkowski adds a physical presence to the Tampa offense that simply cannot be replaced when he’s out.
“Gronk’s the best tight end ever, so when you have him out there, it’s good for your offense,” Evans summarized.
Yeah, it’s more than that.
When Gronkowski plays, Brady is better. The quarterback’s more comfortable and more confident because he knows when things go sideways, Gronkowski will be exactly where he’s supposed to be.
So Gronk is a huge help for the most important player on the team.
“In every way,” Brady said, “because he’s so dynamic in the run game and the pass game, short throws, deep throws, red zone, third down. He’s a dominant blocker. He’s consistent, dependable.
“He’s been my teammate for a long time, and it’s a real privilege to play with such an incredible player and person.”
A lot was made of the Buccaneers doing great work to bring back all 22 starters from last year’s Super Bowl roster. But the truth is the team has been playing without a handful of those starters for weeks.
Despite the return of Murphy-Bunting and Gronkowski, Tampa still played this game without receiver Antonio Brown or defensive tackle Vita Vea or cornerback Carlton Davis — all key players. The club also lost guard Ali Marpet to an oblique injury during the game.
This stuff doesn’t stop the Bucs from moving forward, but it certainly slows the progress.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt, if we can get Carlton back, AB back and get Vita back and hopefully Ali’s not hurt too bad and we can continue to get healthy rather than get hurt — health is going to be the whole key the rest of the way,” Arians said.
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero