Tom Brady resembling classic Brady. But Bucs will need everyone.

Everything that went into Tom Brady — recovery, desperation, a flashback — certainly came at just the right time on Sunday with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looking a complete disaster.

Brady put the Bucs on their toes when they needed nothing less to overcome a 14 hole against the Carolina Panthers to clinch another NFC South crown with a 30-24 win. He beat Father Time again and had his first 400-yard game of the season, 432 to be exact. For the first time in five games, he didn’t throw an interception. And he struck gold again with Mike Evans, finally, connecting for three long touchdowns… which largely explains the season-best 127.3 passer rating.

“Tom was just losing pennies,” said Evans, who scored for the first time since Week 4.

Still, given the pattern of inconsistency we’ve seen the Bucs’ entire season (8-8), it’s fair to ask:

Was this a sign of things to come in the NFC playoffs or some sort of curtain call?

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The Bucs are there but still need to step up a gear to avoid a one-time playoff appearance, having dodged another potential upset against the Panthers a week after escaping an embarrassing loss at Arizona.

Of course, nothing is taken for granted in the wild and wild NFL. If a team gets hot at the right time…

And it’s a team with the greatest Super Bowl winner of all time, 45-year-old Brady. Just when you think you can count it, Brady has a way of writing another page of his legend. Still, even though Brady continues to show vitality in his arm and leads the NFL in pass attempts and completions, that’s not the formula to bank on deeper in January. It will take a lot more 400-yard games from TB12 if the Bucs are to beat Dallas (or Philadelphia) in Game 1 of the playoffs and then hit the road as legitimate contenders.

Brady is flanked by a running game that ranks last in the NFL. Huge problem. The Bucs averaged 2.7 yards per carry (25 carries, 67 yards) against the Panthers. Sure, we’ve seen Leonard Fournette take on an alter ego, “Playoff Lenny,” the past two Januarys. But Fournette revealed last week that he was playing with a Lisfranc foot injury. With up-and-coming rookie Rashaad White in the mix, Bucs coordinator Byron Leftwich could create a sort of replacement hasty attack by using the backs as outlets in the short-passing game. But that probably doesn’t replace the reliability that comes with a team that can run the ball when they need it.

Then again, the Bucs also know there are worse situations than putting the chips on Brady.

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Finding out about the through passing game with Evans on Sunday (10 catches, 207 yards) was so meaningful. They missed so much during the season to connect with the deep lifts that were a hallmark of former coach Bruce Arians’ ‘no risk, no cookie’ philosophy.

“I’ve missed him too many times this year,” Brady told reporters. “So it was nice to connect. Hopefully we can keep it that way.”

Remember the last time they played the Panthers? Evans dropped a deep ball early and it was a harbinger for a nightmarish game that saw the Bucs not score as much as a touchdown in their worst offensive performance of the season. Sunday’s correction is fueling hope and confidence, but moving forward needs to be backed by consistency. Against better competition.

Brady knows it. The Bucs have played with fire too much this season. He lamented some of the challenges by category – in the red zone, in third downs, in features, on shorts.

“Statistically, we didn’t do a lot of things well,” he said. “Everything needs to be cleaned up. This is the reality of where it is.

Defense wins championships? In fact, it is complementary football that wins. And on a day the Bucs twice found themselves inside Carolina’s 10-yard line and couldn’t score a touchdown – settling for a field goal and having a field goal attempt blocked — it helped Todd Bowles’ defense pick up three turnovers.

But the theme of coherence applies at all levels. Much like Brady’s offense, the sixth-ranked defense hasn’t always lived up to its reputation, especially against the kind of competition it will see in the playoffs.

In Tampa Bay’s last two losses, earlier in December, he allowed the Bengals 34 points and the 49ers 35. In winning against the Panthers, the Bucs gave up 400 yards and again showed a tendency to leave too many big plays—including three completions of at least 30 yards—to be desired.

Perhaps the Bucs are about to set everything up for another deep playoff run that features the drama of whether Brady can find his way to another Super Bowl. They have certainly shown resilience, over the course of the season and in games like the ones they faced on Sunday.

Or maybe it’s a mirage and the Bucs are destined for a one-time playoff appearance.

USA Today

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