BY IRA KAUFMAN
The Bucs are one win away from making Week 18 irrelevant.
With one victorious effort next Sunday at home against Carolina, Tampa Bay can get a break from this grind of a season and rest up for a first-round playoff matchup against America’s Team.
It wasn’t easy for Tampa’s team at Arizona, where the Bucs scored the game’s final 13 points in an OT triumph as the Cardinals finished 1-8 at home. Once again, the defense kept the Bucs close before Tom Brady found a way.
There were times Brady looked lost Sunday night as one of the NFL’s worst defenses allowed only one touchdown. Steady Ryan Succop kicked four field goals, including the game-winner for the 7-8 Bucs, who snapped a 4-game road losing streak.
If Tampa Bay can neutralize a Carolina ground game that Brady duly noted “ran the crap out of the ball” against the Lions on Saturday, the Bucs will likely repeat as NFC South champions. Should the Panthers prevail, they would tie the Bucs at 7-9 and own the tie-breaker edge by virtue of a season sweep.
Nothing came easy Sunday evening as Brady tossed two more interceptions to continue a disturbing pattern. Although the run game was productive, Brady threw 48 times. Most of them were quick, short passes as Leonard Fournette and Chris Godwin caught 17 of the 20 throws sent their way.
Trace McSorley, making his first NFL start, had decent moments for Arizona under center, but he averaged less than 5 yards per pass attempt. Todd Bowles did a good job disguising coverages and mixing in some effective blitzes in an effort to confuse an inexperienced QB.
Against a better opponent, the Bucs would probably have lost Sunday evening. Falling behind and going to a 2-minute offense helped jar Tampa Bay out of its lethargy and Brady responded with late magic — just as he demonstrated against the Rams and Saints.
Here’s how the Bucs did just enough to avoid a setback that would have ensured Brady’s first losing season:
* Tampa Bay’s secondary deserves credit for a blanket job on DeAndre Hopkins. Yes, it was McSorley delivering the football instead of Kyler Murray, but Hopkins was targeted 10 times and caught one pass for four yards. Sean Murphy-Bunting, in particular, played a strong game.
* Special team miscues continue to be an issue. Andy Lee victimized the Bucs on a fake punt and Tampa Bay also allowed a 28-yard punt return. On the bright side, Succop has been terrific.
* Brady has now been picked off at least twice in each of the past three games. Carolina’s defense is markedly better than Arizona’s and the Bucs can’t keep giving opponents short fields.
* JJ Watt was a force, especially in the opening half. The 3-time Defensive Player of the Year finished with 2 tackles for loss and 2 QB hits. Five years after his retirement, he’ll be fitted for a gold jacket.
* Tristan Wirfs wasn’t close to 100 percent — and it showed. That gimpy ankle robbed him of a step, but he gutted it out on a night left tackle Josh Wells was carted off with a knee injury. Protection off the edges could be a problem against the Panthers.
* Carolina’s offensive line overpowered Detroit and the Panthers ran wild. That’s a problem because James Conner just hurt the Bucs on the ground, averaging 5.3 yards on his 15 carries, including a 22-yard TD dash that put the Cardinals ahead 16-6 with 10:47 remaining. The defensive game plan for Bowles is obvious: stack the line of scrimmage and make Sam Darnold beat you through the air.
* Mike Evans and Brady have no chemistry…none. Evans was targeted 8 times but finished with 3 catches for 29 yards. In the past five games, Brady has completed less than half the passes intended for Evans. Evans’ streak of consecutive games without a TD catch has reached 11. How is that possible?
* With Lavonte David and Devin White leading the defensive charge, the Cardinals converted only 5-of-19 on third down. They weren’t going to score in overtime unless Arizona came up with another takeaway.
* The league somehow declined to flex the Panthers-Bucs game, keeping it a 1 pm start. A divisional showdown and Tom Brady’s presence wasn’t enough to switch the matchup to prime time and make Bruce Arians wait a few more hours for his Ring of Honor induction ceremony?
* Should the Bucs prevail Sunday, there’s no reason to play Brady at Atlanta the following week. Tampa Bay would be locked in as the NFC’s No. 4 playoff seed, so let Blaine Gabbert and Kyle Trask have at it. Brady needs a break more than he needs the work in this hard day’s night of a season.
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