As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers struggled with slow starts and developing a rhythm offensively for a few consecutive games entering the bye week, questions were flying from all angles.
Does Tom Brady just not have it anymore? Is he meshing well with his pass-catchers and surrounding teammates? Are Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich underwhelming as play-callers and game-planners?
One win coming off of a bye week won't silence skeptics completely, however, the Buccaneers' offense certainly played well enough in Week 14. With just 49 plays to work with as Minnesota won the time of possession battle significantly, 39:03 to 20:57, the Bucs' scored 26 points and averaged 6.2 yards per play.
Brady's stats didn't jump off of the gamebook, but he looked comfortable for the first time in weeks. The Bucs punted their first two drives, before scoring on each of their next four, for a total of 23 points. Brady sparked the offense with a 48-yard touchdown to receiver Scotty Miller, and finished his 15-of-23 for 196 yards with two scores.
"I don't know why anyone's criticizing Tom," Arians said on Wednesday. "What he did at the end of the half and to start the second half [against] Minnesota – very, very few teams can score 17 points in a matter of five or six minutes."
That, Brady and Co. did.
The QB went 4-of-5 for 29 yards on a 56-yard drive that ended in a Ronald Jones II touchdown with 0:44 seconds until halftime. The Vikings followed with a measly 13-second drive and gave the Bucs the ball right back - Brady completed two passes for 25 yards, targeted tight end Rob Gronkowski on a Hail Mary that ended in defensive pass interference, setting Tampa Bay up for a clock-expiring field goal.
Tampa Bay opened the second half with the ball, and exploded with a 75-yard drive on nine plays. Running back LeSean McCoy entered the game and changed the run game pace, gaining 32 yards on four straight attempts. Brady then connected with Mike Evans on a beautiful throw for a 29-yard gain, before finding Gronkowski for a two-yard score.
"If we finished the half with 17 points, I don't [care] how we start," said Arians. "He's [Brady] not getting enough credit for what he's doing."
Arians went on to say Brady is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season for the Buccaneers. He ranks fourth in the NFL in touchdown passes with 30, and 10th in passing yards with 3,496, so it's a reasonable expectation that Brady should be in the conversation.
Still, after a four-game stretch with seven interceptions and the offense looking out-of-sync, more performances like the one Brady had against Minnesota will be needed to cement him in that discussion, and more importantly, the Buccaneers' as a legitimate playoff contender.
Brady and the Bucs back on the right track, but how they finish the regular season - against lesser competition in the Atlanta Falcons (twice) and Detroit Lions - will be telling.