The Bucs went and did it.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a game that they were supposed to, in dominant fashion, over the Detroit Lions on the road on Saturday by a score of 47-7. As a result, the Bucs are playoff-bound for the first time since the Jon Gruden days.
Just about everything went right for Tampa Bay, while everything - before and during the game - went wrong for Detroit. You almost have to feel a little bad for the beating the Bucs put on the Lions, considering the majority of the opening day coaching staff was kept home due to COVID-19 contact tracing (or has since been fired). But in 2020, you've got to be prepared for absolutely anything.
The Lions simply weren't prepared for the Buccaneers.
Below, you'll find my five key takeaways from the playoff-clinching win - some directly from the game, and some looking toward the future.
Tom Brady found great success with the deep ball.
Remember when quarterback Tom Brady threw 20-some straight incompletions on deep (20+ air yard) passes in the middle of the season? He probably doesn't, at least anymore.
Brady completed 6-of-8 such passes for 174 yards and three touchdowns on the day, including each of his first five attempts for 140 yards and two scores. The second score set a new Bucs' single-season high of touchdown passes, at 34.
The opponent may have been a factor, but Brady and head coach Bruce Arians' aggressive, vertical preference of offense are meshing at the right time. With the vast arsenal of pass-catching weapons that can stretch the field at his disposal, this offense certainly looks like it can be a dangerous one entering the postseason.
A fast start!
Brady's deep ball certainly helped here as he went 4-for-4 for 140 yards on those throws across the Buccaneers' first two drives.
It appeared as if Tampa was set for another slow start to a game, as we've grown accustomed to - the Bucs' last scored points in the first quarter in Week 10 against the Carolina Panthers - but a three-and-out was blown by the Lions due to an offsides penalty on defensive lineman Everson Griffen after linebacker Jahlani Tavai recorded a third down sack. Four plays and 76 yards later, Brady found tight end Rob Gronkowski in the endzone.
The Bucs would proceed to score on five of six first half possessions, all touchdowns. Only one of those drives lasted over four minutes, along with the lone punting drive.
Even after the second score when the Bucs changed up their play-style, Tampa Bay moved effectively. Running back Leonard Fournette received five-of-six touches on the fourth drive, gaining 39 of 51 total yards across an entirely no-huddle scripted drive, and scoring a four-yard rushing touchdown.
The fast start was something the team needed before the playoffs. The Bucs defense has struggled against up-tempo offenses rather consistently this season, which has called for the Tampa Bay offense to match scores. In the playoffs, that ability will be crucial.
Head coach Bruce Arians was happy about the fast start as well. However, his excitement was directed at the outside noise.
"It was something we need desperately just so people would quit talking about it. We were winning, but we weren’t winning nice enough" said Arians. "Today, hopefully it was nice enough.”
The game was over when Matthew Stafford got injured.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford injured his ankle on the first drive of the game, which lasted four plays and went for 24 yards. He did not return, and the combination of career-long backup Chase Daniel and a fourth-quarter showing by David Blough resulted in a measly seven points.
As if being without the majority of the primary coaching staff wasn't bad enough for Detroit, the Lions also didn't have their No. 1 receiver in Kenny Golladay. A deep threat that pairs well with Stafford, those could have created some excitement for the Detroit offense.
But without Golladay and with pressure mounting via the Bucs' pass rush, there was simply no momentum to be had on the first drive. Losing Stafford put the icing on the cake for Tampa Bay, as Detroit's offense was, from that point on, totally lifeless.
Ke'Shawn Vaughn should start next week.
Brady said after the game that he needs to "play well next week" against Atlanta after a rough start against the Falcons in Week 15. If his words indicate anything, that means the starters will at least start the game, despite having a playoff spot clinched. The No. 5 seed is still in play.
However, one backup should start next week instead of a usual suspect: Fourth string running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Vaughn put up the best performance of his rookie season against the Lions with 15 carries for 62 yards at 4.1 yards per carry, also adding a reception for an additional seven yards.
I know, I just praised Fournette for his showing on the fourth drive. But those 39 yards on five touches made up over half of his production: 66 yards on 12 touches, including 34 rushing yards on nine attempts (3.8 yards per carry). Over the last two weeks, Fournette has yet to crack four yards per rush while starting in place of the injured/reserve/COVID-19-listed Ronald Jones II. Fournette's three scores have come on plays that have combined for six yards.
Vaughn is simply more effective with the ball in his hands. He consistently made the first tackler miss on Saturday and had numerous runs go for nearly 10 yards or more. Vaughn ended up taking carries from Fournette for the remainder of the game, after Founrette's score.
Of course, Jones' status will need to be monitored. He had not cleared league COVID-19 protocol as of this past Thursday, per Arians. But if Jones does get cleared this week, he's an obvious candidate to keep rested for the playoffs as the Bucs' clear-cut No. 1 running back. They've won two games in a row without him.
In which case, give the rookie the lion's share of reps in the backfield. He's doing more with the ball in his hands than Fournette from an efficiency standpoint based on their latest sample sizes. It's time to see what Vaughn can do in a bigger role, which could prove beneficial in case he is needed in the postseason.
Buccaneers' road prosperity could be a postseason advantage.
The Buccaneers are guaranteed to start the playoffs on the road as a Wild Card team. With a ton of luck, and of course, two road wins, they could host the conference championship, but hosting isn't likely as a fifth seed.
Fortunately for the Bucs, they're a better team on the road than they are at home this season. Crowd influence isn't a factor due to the pandemic, and the Bucs have taken advantage en route to a 6-2 away record and a +100 point differential as the visiting team. Across the six wins, the Bucs have more than doubled their opponent's points scored (222-to-110).
Of course, 40 of those points in the differential come from the Lions game. That would leave the Bucs as 8.57-point winners, on average, in every other road game - technically a two-score advantage.
The Bucs will face much tougher competition in the playoffs than their relatively easy road schedule this season - those eight opponents have a combined 48-67 record thus far.
Still, the playoffs are all about the momentum you bring into it. A 40-point win, and such a vast road point differential, is the momentum that a Wild Card team absolutely needs and clings onto.