In 2006, Tom Brady dragged a New England Patriots team with very little at wide receiver to the AFC championship game. Had it not been for a great comeback by Peyton Manning, he would have lifted that team to a Super Bowl.
Brady was in his 20s then. You may have heard, he's 45 years old now. Brady did his best on Sunday, rallying the Buccaneers for a long drive and a touchdown with 14 seconds left after more than three quarters struggling to move the ball. But a delay-of-game penalty before the two-point conversion attempt pushed the Bucs back, and Brady's pass was batted down and the Green Bay Packers won 14-12.
The Bucs could end up being very good this season, but it's going to be a grind until they get healthy. And there were a lot of injuries and absences to cover on Sunday. Tampa Bay was stuck without them until the final drive.
The Buccaneers went into Sunday's game without receivers Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Julio Jones as well as center Ryan Jensen and left tackle Donovan Smith. (Also tight end Rob Gronkowski and guard Ali Marpet, if you want to count two offseason retirements.) It showed. The skeleton Buccaneers offense was shut down by the Packers defense most of the game. When they did get it going for a late touchdown, the sloppy penalty before the two-point conversion cost them.
Brady is 45 but it's not fair to say he's showing his age. Not many quarterbacks would do much better with all those players out of the lineup.
Buccaneers struggle to move the ball
The Buccaneers were stuck on three points into the third quarter. After a field goal on their first drive, their possessions resulted in punt, punt, fumble, end of half, fumble, punt. Three of those punts came after a three-and-out.
The offense got some help after that series of bad possessions. Logan Ryan nabbed a rare Aaron Rodgers interception near midfield. The ensuing drive started well, with a long catch by tight end Cameron Brate. But then the drive stalled when Brady misfired on a couple passes and the Bucs settled for a field goal. That's how it went most of the game.
In the fourth quarter the Buccaneers hit a 25-yard pass to Jaelon Darden, their biggest play of the day to that point. Then they tried a trick play that was supposed to be a reverse flea-flicker back to Brady, but the handoff on the reverse was flubbed, fumbled and the play lost 12 yards. It was the kind of play that's called by a coaching staff that doesn't have a lot of faith in the conventional offense working. Brady was sacked on second down and the Bucs ended up punting after a promising start to the drive.
The Buccaneers offense seemed just a touch off for most of the game. Sometimes passes missed the mark by a little, perhaps due to timing between Brady and new receivers. Other times receivers didn't make plays that were available.
The Bucs came alive on their final drive. Brady started finding open receivers and got the Bucs inside the 10-yard line with less than a minute to go. A defensive pass interference call put the ball at the 3-yard line with 26 seconds left. On third-and-goal, Brady hit Russell Gage Jr. for a touchdown with 14 seconds to go. The two-point conversion was batted away after the delay of game. That penalty summed up the frustration the Buccaneers had on Sunday.
The final drive was promising. It was mostly just a reminder that with even a couple of those injured or suspended stars in the lineup, Tampa Bay probably would have won.
Short list of NFC contenders
The list of NFC contenders might be pretty thin. The Packers were good on defense but it was a bit troubling how the offense couldn't put the game away. The Los Angeles Rams looked better on Sunday but they've been just OK to start the season. Nobody else has really stood out except the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Buccaneers should and probably will be a contender, but it depends how you feel about Brady. If Brady is still the same quarterback who led the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns last season but is hampered by a beat-up supporting cast, then he should be fine when those players start to get healthy. If Brady doesn't have much left in his age-45 season, the Buccaneers are in trouble.
We'll see which way it goes. Other than one long drive at the end on Sunday, it didn't look good for Brady or the offense.