The warning bells that had been flashing on Tampa Bay’s dashboard of late turned an engine billowing smoke as all four tires flattened.
The Buccaneers were winning, but the rattles were real. Tom Brady all but signaled it when he not only pressed for the signing of troubled wideout Antonio Brown, but he let him move into his house. TB12 knew they needed help. The call was coming from the inside.
On Sunday, it became apparent to everyone.
New Orleans 38, Tampa 3, the worst beatdown of Brady’s two decade-plus NFL career. It may have been even uglier than that. Only a late fourth-quarter field goal saved the Bucs from the embarrassment of a shutout. It was something out of the New York Jets’ playbook … or Tampa’s during its many lost seasons.
It certainly wasn’t something you see from Super Bowl champions, which is all that Brady is playing for at age 43.
Tampa couldn’t block New Orleans (three sacks allowed, one intentional grounding). It couldn’t tackle New Orleans (420 total yards). It couldn’t run against New Orleans (8 net rushing yards). It couldn’t pass against New Orleans (209 total yards in the air, despite more than a half of desperation).
“It was a collapse,” linebacker Shaq Barrett said. “A total team collapse.”
Tampa ran just 46 offensive plays. The first half featured five drives of three plays or fewer.
“We just didn’t play the way we are capable of playing,” Brady said. “Everybody has to get back to work and that starts with me.”
This was a complete whupping, perhaps best visualized by Brady running for his life and chucking balls wildly as the Saints blew up his offensive line and blanketed all his receivers.
Either that or the fact the Saints played backup quarterback Jameis Winston late in the game, giving Winston a chance to see action against his old team and against Brady, the guy who replaced him. He later crashed a postgame interview on NBC and brought back his much-mocked “eat a W” gesture.
It was that kind of night for New Orleans, with Drew Brees chucking four touchdown passes and completing attempts to a dozen teammates. Brady got into the party by throwing three passes that Saints players caught as well.
“I certainly have to play a lot better,” Brady said.
Where does Tampa go from here? It’s hard to say. It’s still just Week 9, plenty of time for improvement. Then again, Super Bowl champions rarely, if ever, suffer losses like this. None have been beaten by 35.
In 2005, Baltimore lost to Houston, 43-13. In 2003, New England got shut out, 31-0, by Buffalo. In 1976, the then Oakland Raiders lost to the Patriots by 31. In 1994, San Francisco lost 40-8 to Philadelphia.
All went on to win it all. So, hey, anything is possible. Maybe.
More recently, back in 2014, Brady and New England were crushed 42-14 at Kansas City, leading to plenty of “the Patriots dynasty is over” talk. They went on to win the Super Bowl that postseason, of course. Then two more over the next four years.
As bad as that blowout was, this was worse. And Tampa doesn’t have Bill Belichick or a championship culture. That’s what Brady was supposed to bring.
Maybe he still can, but the NFC South is all but gone. New Orleans, by sweeping both regular-season games, is effectively two games up in the standings, plus has an easier schedule ahead.
At 6-3, the wild card is still available, but Tampa will have to figure out its offensive line before it gets real.
“He had all his weapons on the field as well, too,” Brees said on NBC after the game. “I thought it was going to be one of those games. They did a phenomenal job. Can’t say enough about the pass rush, obviously Tom took a lot of hits tonight. Can’t say enough about the front four.”
About the only positives? Receiver Chris Godwin, who is a critical cog in the attack, returned to action. Brown seemed to begin shaking off some suspension rust that has kept him out of football for over a year and made a couple nice plays.
Oh, and by dropping to the fifth seed in the NFC (if it were to hold), the Bucs would get to play whatever the NFC East spits out as a champion on wild-card weekend.
Other than that, it’s back to the drawing board. No amount of big-name weapons — whether it’s AB or Gronk — can save you if you can’t block anyone.
“It’s about playing better and execution,” Brady said. “We all have to do our job better. When you play against good teams, there isn’t a margin for error.”
NFC East champion asides, there are only good teams in January, which isn’t here yet, but isn’t that far off either.
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