Tom Brady, Bucs running out of time to stop downward spiral

TAMPA, Fla. — This wasn’t the kind of story Tom Brady came out of retirement to make.

Before Sunday, the Buccaneers quarterback was 89-0 in his career in home games where he leads by 17 points or more at any point in the game. Only three losses in 23 NFL seasons, period, once he had such a big cushion.

And somehow, the Bucs went from leading the Bengals 17-0 right before halftime — hey, that’s how they’re able to come back — to Brady committing four turnovers in a 10- offensive plays, helping the Bengals to an impressive 34-23 comeback victory.

“Turnovers kill you, and they killed us today,” said Brady, who had four combined turnovers in the first 11 games this season. “It’s not the way we have to (play) to win, and it’s certainly not the way I have to play to win. … We literally just gave them the ball.”

Up 14 at the half and losing by 11 points or more? That had happened just four times to any NFL team since 1987, just under 35 years, and the Bucs pulled it off Sunday, finding a new and even more confusing way to lose.

A week earlier, they were down 28-0 at halftime, losing 35-7 to the 49ers. They have lost twice, to the Packers and Steelers, on missed two-point conversions. They lost on a one-handed touchdown catch in the final minute to set up an overtime loss.

Despite all those losses — eight now, the most for a team with Brady as their starting quarterback — the Bucs have the odd consolation of still being in first place in the NFC South, one game ahead of three 5- -9 and still a lot. controlling their playoff destiny.

“All you can do is fight,” coach Todd Bowles said after the game. “You can fight, you can play smarter, you can train smarter, and we have to keep fighting. We understand that what we’re doing is not good enough, not by a long shot. It’s not even good enough, and we have three games left to save our season.”

The Bucs play Christmas at Arizona, which just lost quarterback Kyler Murray to a season-ending knee injury, and is 4-10 and has lost four straight and six of seven. Win there and at home on New Year’s Day against Carolina (who beat them 20-3 in Charlotte this season) and Tampa Bay will clinch back-to-back division titles for the first time in its history by winning a playoff game at home .

Odds aside, that seems hard to imagine, considering how the Bucs played in the second half on Sunday, 17-3 and in total control of the game.

Facing a fourth-and-1 from his own 26-yard line, Bowles called for a fake punt, but as the ball was snapped right to safety Gio Bernard, he didn’t seem to expect it and the ball it bounced side of his helmet and was attacked by a down swing. Even then, the Bucs defense held the Bengals to just one field goal and held a 17-6 lead.

Then four Brady turnovers in four plays, leading to three Bengals touchdowns and a 27-17 lead. Brady had a pass intercepted by Tre Flowers, hit a sack and then passed to Leonard Fournette. The Bengals only had to go 31, 13 and 39 yards for their touchdowns, after getting the ball to the Bucs’ 13 from the punt. If there was any chance of rallying for a comeback, Brady threw another interception on the next drive, for four turnovers in a 10-play span.

“We’re angry,” Bowles said of his locker room after the game. “It’s the same song as always. It’s Bucs against Bucs. We have a good first half, and the second half, we come out and shoot ourselves in the foot, whether it’s turnovers or penalties or field position on special teams. It’s a story of two halves, and the half we played in the second half was Bucs against Bucs.”

That’s been the story all season, a team good enough for Brady to come out of retirement, but unable to score anywhere near as consistently as his first two seasons in Tampa, averaging 30 points per game. The Bucs’ 23 points Sunday — including six on a meaningless touchdown pass with 49 seconds left — marked the second-highest total this season, behind a 41-31 loss to the Chiefs that also included a tackle-on touchdown on the season. the final minutes.

The defense continues to be unable to create regularly. They had one on Sunday, intercepting a Joe Burrow pass, but that’s just 13 total in 14 games — in the entire NFL, only the Raiders (11) and Saints (10) have forced fewer.

The Bucs are just three games away, and could even return to the playoffs as 7-10 division champions, but it’s been so rare that they’ve played like a top-ranked team, that they’ve played like a division-winning team beginning to end, that even if they did make the playoffs, there is little confidence in what the Bucs could do, even with a seven-time Super Bowl champion at quarterback.

“I think we have the ability to play well,” Brady said. “I don’t think we lack confidence to play well. It’s just consistency. Two good quarters don’t win you a football game, and five turnovers don’t win you a football game.”

It is the first time in Brady’s career that he has multiple interceptions and multiple lost fumbles in the same game. His ability to avoid turnovers was perhaps the best he had done as a 45-year-old, but even that has given way with six turnovers in his last two defeats.

The Bucs are a losing team, but reasonably, they only have to beat two teams with losing records in the next three weeks, and they’ll be a playoff team, if an underwhelming one. Tampa Bay doesn’t have much time to turn their season around, but that remains their goal, however frustrating that quest remains for them.

“We have a lot of toughness,” Bowles said. “We have to deal with adversity better. We have to stop the mistakes and the Bucs against the Bucs. We understand that. We talk about it, we preach it, we practice it, we come together and we will fight. to stop it.”

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Greg Auman is the NFC South reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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