For a long time, the Buccaneers have missed something. Something important, vital to any winning team.
It’s been years since the Bucs have had a spark. A winning spark. A quality beyond measurement except for the win column.
What should be clear now is that the Bucs found this spark with the help of Jameis Winston.
The Bucs teased yet another late game letdown against Atlanta on Sunday, down 19-17 with just over three minutes to play. Two second half turnovers seemed to turn the tide with Doug Martin’s fourth quarter fumble leading to the Falcons’ only touchdown on the day.
Lovie Smith’s team had been here before, appearing as a formidable NFL team in the first half before collapsing through the second. It happened with Indianapolis, Washington and the previous meeting with Atlanta.
The Bucs’ defense, considered a viable substitute for Swiss cheese earlier in the season, actually kept Tampa Bay in the game. They held Atlanta to just four field goals before the fourth quarter touchdown despite playing without their two best pass-rushers, Gerald McCoy and Jacquies Smith.
This Sunday the Bucs were undone by turnovers which had become uncharacteristic of Jameis Winston and Doug Martin. The game nearly ended when Winston was picked off by Paul Worrilow, but the Falcons linebacker was called for pass interference, negating the turnover.
Little went right for the Bucs on this final drive. Right tackle Demar Dotson, returning to the starting lineup with Gosder Cherilus out, committed a holding penalty, bringing back a big run by Martin. Two plays later, Winston was sacked, leaving the Bucs with a third-and-forever situation.
The most viable option for the offense was to pick up enough yardage to get within field goal range, but that kept the Falcons within one point of retaking the lead.
It’s times like these when teams need that spark. There was a glimmer of it against Dallas during the offense’s late game-winning drive, right up until Winston fumbled the ball in the endzone. Only a lucky break and a defensive holding call gave the Bucs the ball back, leading to a score.
This Sunday was different. The missing piece materialized in a surreal play that could very well mark a turning point for the franchise.
Winston, surrounded by rushers and facing a thick blanket of coverage, took off running. While this has become a common sight from the Bucs rookie passer, 20 yards is a lot for even the swiftest of running quarterbacks.
Ten yards short of the first down marker, a bevy of Falcons defenders converged on Winston. A field goal was once again possible but the game far from over. All Atlanta has to do is get Winston down.
But lo, Winston rips himself from the clutches of Atlanta’s sleepy defense and races another 10 yards to pick up the first down. Raymond James erupts with emotion not felt for too long a time.
The ensuing touchdown was practically inevitable as was Lavonte David’s game-sealing interception of Matt Ryan.
That’s how winning teams close a game. Let’s see if it’s a winning team that finishes the season.