Lions, Panthers, and Draft Picks…Oh My!

We’re on the cusp of the final moments of the season, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are really more of an experiment in emotional perseverance than a football team. Last year, I got to watch the year’s utter implosion purely from the viewpoint of a fan. This year, I’ve melded such heartbreak with the viewpoint of a sports writer. It’s been an enlightening, and painful, season. As the season has progressed, my increasingly critical eye has made the failures all the more difficult as a fan. Week after week, my optimism has been tested by the cold hard statistical truth.

Last week was no different. The Buccaneers began their final pair of road games by visiting The Motor Murder City to face the (then) 8-4 Detroit Lions. While the cheesiest team in the NFL is playing some of the best football around, the Lions are neck and neck in the race for the NFC North playoff spot. The Packers have the second highest point differential in the league at +119, just behind New England’s differential of +134. The Lions are far behind in that category at only +41, but they’re only a single game behind Green Bay and have not yet lost a divisional match.

With all of this in mind, it’s not really that surprising that the Bucs got mauled (Pewter Report’s choice descriptor) by the Lions 34-17. The Bucs managed to make it a one score game at the half to get everyone’s hopes up, but they predictably blew such hopes in the third quarter by allowing ten points and failing to score any at all. Mike Evans did catch another touchdown in the fourth quarter to bring the Bucs within 10, but clearly such a comeback was not in the cards. There are countless reasons that this happened, but it seems to keep coming back to the same issues.

Problem one, the offensive line led by Casper the Disappointing Center. Evan Dietrich-Smith has continued to be a let down as the season has gone on and this game was no exception. He’s better than Garrett Gilkey, but that’s about as far as his positives go. Casper and the gang did everything they could to help Josh McCown on his way to two touchdowns, two interceptions, and completion percentage that went over 50% by the hair on McCown’s chinny chin chin. McCown did rack up 250 yards along the way. Veteran Vincent Jackson led the pack with 159 yards on 10 receptions. Evans only had four receptions, but he made them count with a highlight reel worthy tiptoeing catch of a tipped pass and two touchdown receptions totalling 45 yards on the day.

Meanwhile, Casper and the gang looked more like Boo from Super Mario Bros. when protecting the run game. Their collective ineptitude caused the Bucs to run the ball a grand total of 14 times. That’s right, they had a season low 14 rushing attempts in the entire game. Keep in mind, four of those were actually Josh McCown trying not to get murdered by the Lions defensive front that was in his face after negative two seconds. The Bucs only managed 26 yards on the ground, and rookie Charles Sims wasn’t able to help much with his -0.8 yards per attempt average.

Amidst this mess, the defense struggled to contain Matthew Stafford. While Jacquies Smith and Danny Lansanah continued to impress and Gerald McCoy had another good day, the unit never could put things together and force a turnover. Things weren’t helped when future 2014 Pro Bowl snub Lavonte David had to leave the game with a possible concussion. There was good play in spots, but it wasn’t enough.

For the final road game of the season, the Buccaneers are traveling to Bank of America Stadium to take on the division rival 4-8-1 playoff contending Carolina Panthers. This is where things get really tricky. The Panthers still have a shot, but a loss to the Bucs might ruin their chances. This means they’ll come all guns blazing. This game will essentially be Mike Evans vs. Kelvin Benjamin as both rookie receivers will look to continue their impressive seasons by making a statement on Sunday.

With Cam Newton out due to a car accident earlier this week, the Bucs will be up against old faithful Derek Anderson who defeated Tampa Bay to open the 2014 regular season. There are plenty of reasons why this game could be won by the Bucs, but such a possibility brings to mind the fact that the Buccaneers currently hold the number one pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Such a pick would work wonders, trade or not, to assist in building towards the future. I tend to like Lovie Smith, despite this season’s issues, and I’d like to see the draft go well for him and the Buccaneers.

While statistically a win in this game would hurt potential draft pick placement, I can’t help but root for a win. The Buccaneers won’t be intentionally playing to lose, even though it may sometimes look like it. Every man on that team cares most about whether or not he can continue to provide for his family by working as a professional football player. The better he plays, the higher the likelihood of him having a job at the end of the season. You can bet that the Lovie-Licht Connection will be watching these last few games closely to decide who will be deemed and official bust and released come season’s end. Mike Evans and Pat Murray are more than likely safe where they are, but they’re the ones I have faith in to pull out the victory and spoil Carolina’s playoff chances. The rookies are running the daycare.

Prediction: Bucs win, 20-17