- Associated Press - Thursday, December 3, 2020

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Bruce Arians never promised it would be easy to transform the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into championship contenders.

Even with Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, LeSean McCoy, Leonard Fournette and, more recently, Antonio Brown joining an offense that already included talented playmakers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Ronald Jones, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.

The Bucs (7-5) have gone all in to try to become the first team to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium this season. But to even have a shot at getting to the NFL title game, they first have to end the the league’s second-longest playoff drought.

Tampa Bay hasn’t earned a postseason berth since 2007. It hasn’t won a playoff game since capturing its only Super Bowl title 18 years ago.

Brady & Company limped into this week’s bye, having lost three of their past four games - all at home - to playoff contenders.

“Everybody tried to hand us the Lombardi Trophy in August,” Arians said. “You don’t just throw guys out there with names. You’ve got to practice. You’ve got to learn to get in sync with each other. That takes time.”

With seven wins, the Bucs have already matched their victory total from all of last season.

And, the remainder of the schedule - home games against Minnesota and Atlanta, in addition to road dates against Detroit and the NFC South rival Falcons - seems favorable nail down a spot in an expanded playoff field.

Still, Arians has mixed feelings about whether the team’s record should be better than 7-5 at this point.

“Yes and no. I think defensively, we’ve had our chances to be better. Offensively, it was going to be a work in progress all season. I thought our kicking game has been outstanding for us, which was a problem in the first game only,” the coach said.

“I’ve seen us get better throughout the season,” Arians added. “We’ve just got to win the next one and stay in this playoff hunt.”

Inconsistency on offense has been part of the problem, with Brady playing poorly in a pair of lopsided losses to New Orleans, as well as missteps against Chicago and the Los Angeles Rams.

The Bucs have been outscored 52-7 in the first quarter of their past four games, including 17-0 during last Sunday’s 27-24 loss to reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas.

Brady rallied the team from a 17-point, fourth-quarter deficit with a pair of TD passes, but also threw a pair of costly second-half interceptions against the Chiefs.

Through 12 games, the 43-year-old quarterback has thrown for 3,300 yards and 28 touchdowns while being besieged by questions about whether Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” push the ball down the field offense is a good fit for the six-time Super Bowl champion.

Nine of Brady’s 11 interceptions - three more than he had a year ago in New England and tied for second with Kirk Cousins and Drew Luck for the most in the NFL this season - have come in four games against the Saints, Rams and Chiefs.

Brady, like Arians, said a lack of execution, especially on third down, has contributed to the team’s offensive woes.

“I think as we keep going forward, we are learning more and more about ourselves, about what we need to do,” Brady said. “We’re going to get back to work and try and do a lot better of a job the last quarter of the season.”

The defense has had issues over the past month, too.

Despite ranking No. 1 against the run and being among the league leaders in sacks, takeaways and points off turnovers, Tampa Bay has struggled to get off the field on third down and keep opponents out of the end zone lately.

Patrick Mahomes completed passes to Tyreek Hill on 13 of 15 targets for 269 yards and three touchdowns last week. More than 200 yards of that damage, including TD receptions of 75 and 44 yards, was inflicted in the first quarter alone.

The defense did a better job over the final three quarters, however the offense wasn’t able to overcome the poor start.

“This is a game of inches and it’s about who is going to make the play. If everyone has the ‘I want it more’ mindset I think we’re going to be all right,” White said. “We are giving it our all, but we’ve got to take the next step. … We’ve got four more games to get it done.”

The Bucs have missed the playoffs 12 consecutive seasons, the second-longest drought in the league behind Cleveland, which hasn’t earned a berth since 2002.

Tampa Bay will be favored in each of its remaining regular-season games. And while most of the team’s players, including Evans, Godwin, White and linebacker Lavonte David, have never been to the playoffs, there’s enough veteran leadership on the roster to show them the way.

Brady, Gronkowski, McCoy and Brown, as well as defensive stalwarts Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh have all either won Super Bowl rings or appeared in at least one NFL title game.

“We know what we need to do, what’s at stake. We win every game, we’re in there. We don’t have to worry about somebody losing or anything,” Pierre-Paul said.

“We know what it takes to get there,” the team’s sack leader added. “It’s are we going to do what it takes to get there?”


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