Gone Fishin ‘casts its eyes on two amazing teams who just needed one break to go their way: Tampa Bay and Buffalo. 31 teams are disappointed at the end of every season. It’s not a business for the faint of heart. These teams should be proud of what they did. But let’s talk about why they lost and what it reveals about them.
Tampa’s injury bug and Antonio Brown‘s defection crushed the Bucs at exactly the wrong time
Tampa’s comeback was the thing of legends, but the reason they fell behind in the first place was pretty easy to foresee based on last Sunday’s playoff game, where Tom Brady was sacked four times. Brady’s strong fantasy numbers (30-for-54, 329 yards, one touchdown, one pick) were more accurately told by his 14.0 ESPN QBR, and he was sacked thrice by the Rams, fumbling once. Tampa’s defense finally got things in check by generating many crucial turnovers, but it was ultimately too little, too late. The Rams were charged with being the Falcons and got off on a technicality after Todd Bowles‘Cover-0 blitz to attempt to keep the Rams out of field goal range was snuffed out by Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp.
The depth of weaponry was too shallow against a stellar defense without Chris Godwin, Tristan Wirfs, and Antonio Brown: The Bucs completed just nine of their 30 passes to players besides Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski, and Leonard Fournette. Those passes gained 69 yards, which is not very nice in this context. And unlike last week, when Tampa’s receivers ran free on Philadelphia’s zones, the Rams were able to bottle up their receivers. Only Evans and Tyler Johnson were able to gain more than the league average amount of separation on their targets per NFL Next Gen Stats.
Meanwhile, the Rams pressured Brady an enormous amount, with Von Miller teeing off and getting plenty of pressure from the left side.
This was a game where the Bucs simply could not afford to go down multiple scores in, and though they came back, that was more about their defense forcing turnovers than anything their offense was doing. Brady played very well for a quarterback put in those conditions, but if you can rush four and get pressure as much as the Rams did, it’s going to make the game-plan very Leonard Fournette-heavy and screen-heavy. There were not many explosive plays for Tampa.
The defense did an amazing job on run defense and with turnovers, but two plays undid it all: Tampa’s been a pass funnel defense all season because they’ve generally played the run very well. They finished 12th in run defense DVOA despite Vita Vea and Lavonte David missing some time. No problems there, as they stifled the Rams rushing attack and helped keep the game close by not giving the Rams any traction to run out the clock. Then there was Cooper Kupp‘s touchdown catch on third-and-20:
Tampa’s defense barely played together all year, and those communication problems showed up in a real way as players spoke about not being on the same page on Kupp’s long catch that put the Rams in game-winning field-goal range. I do not blame Todd Bowles for what happened here because overall, the unit looked pretty good. They did not generate quite enough pass rush on Stafford, but the coverages in and of themselves were not bad.
Where do they go from here ?: Tampa enters the 2022 season $ 19 million under the cap per About The Cap’s figures. Tom Brady‘s retirement status comes first – I find it kind of unlikely he’d walk away after a season where he’ll likely finish second in MVP voting, but it’s not something he quashed when asked about it after the game. But after that, they’ve got a number of key players that are UFAs: Alex Cappa and Ryan Jensen on the offensive line, Chris Godwin at wideout, Rob Gronkowski at tight end, Leonard Fournette at running back, and Jason Pierre-Paul, Carlton Davis, and Ndamukong Suh on defense. That is a lot of mouths to feed with so little cap room, and outside of cutting Cameron Brate (saving $ 5.3 million), they do not have a whole lot of in-house options to free up money without restructures.
I think the way this likely ends is with a Godwin franchise tag, one last Brady restructure to try to reload as much of the team as Tampa can, and one last run at the title. They were not all that far off this year, and with better health at the right time, they probably could have handled the problems the Rams present a little better. This is why the Rams went all-in on players like Odell Beckham Jr. and Miller when they did – this was a game they won by going all-in. You’ve got to tip your cap to it.
The App is Back! Do not forget to download the NBC Sports EDGE app to receive real-time player news, mobile alerts and track your favorite players. Plus, now you can check out articles and player cards. Get it here!
The Bills offense does absolutely nothing but crush and they’re not rewarded for it
OK, OK, the Bills probably coward-punted one time too many. They probably ran Devin Singletary too often and got a little too enthralled with their short spacing game early against the Chiefs. But when you’re up three points with 13 seconds … and you lose … it’s hard for me to pin a lot of the problems on the offense. I do not like saying that I was a big detractor of Josh Allen‘s as a college prospect because that imbues a little bit too much power to my opinion, but I definitely did not see him turning out to be, in Shea Serrano’s words, an F-150 that can throw 75 yards. It’s a game he did not deserve to lose and one that rubs uncomfortably against the NFL’s silly overtime rules.
Did Buffalo’s defense really do anything wrong ?: Situationally? Sure. Think back to the 49ers game against the Cowboys last weekend when Dak Prescott got flambeed alive for running with so little time left. What happened before that is now lost to the narrative, but Prescott managed 39 easy yards to get to the San Francisco 41, and all it took was three plays and 16 seconds. The traditional prevent defensive strategies of yore do not work against the NFL’s great quarterbacks, and while all it would have taken is one Patrick Mahomes incompletion for the Bills to win, he did not throw that incompletion. He had two incredibly easy throws to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, two timeouts, and the field goal that tied the game. That was a preventable disaster for Buffalo – all they had to do was play defense more normally.
Then there was the fact that they did not squib the kickoff – I suppose that one I’d be more willing to hear an excuse from the Bills special teams coordinator about, but not squibbing left plenty of time on the clock.
Toss that aside and the Bills defense forced two Chiefs punts and three field-goal attempts. I would argue that all of those are wins against Mahomes the way he was playing. Mahomes was maneuvering the pocket extremely well, he escaped several sacks from the Buffalo line and turned those into positive gains. His ball placement was immaculate. He did not make the key red zone mistake that had plagued the team all season, the one where he throws something funky that gets tipped up in the air and intercepted.
The dreadful thing about a playoff game like this – one of the best ones I’ve ever watched in my life – is that there’s a winner and a loser. It’s not a double-elimination tournament, at least until the NFL realizes how much money they could make on that. I do not think the Bills really did a lot wrong from a tactical perspective. I could have quibbles about playcalls here, or coverages on certain plays there, or Sean McDermott‘s punt selection there. But at the end of the day, they got beat because they blinked for 13 seconds and the game was gone.
Where do they go from here ?: The Bills enter the offseason with just $ 7.5 million in cap room per OTC, but they have paths to more money fairly easily. Cutting Cole Beasley would free up $ 6.1 million. They have players like Mitch Morse, Jordan Poyer, and Stefon Diggs that could restructure their contracts to free up 2022 cap space if need be. They’re also very well-situated as far as free agency goes. Starting corner Levi Wallace is the only free agent they have that played more than 65% of the snaps this year, and they can plug in Tre’Davious White after he recovers from his ACL tear.
Buffalo’s biggest problem will probably be on the defensive line, where Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, Harrison Phillips, and Vernon Butler are all free agents. They’ll need to figure out how to re-structure the rotation. That feels like small potatoes compared to many of the teams we’ve already said goodbye to in the playoffs. They’re well-set for the near future.