TAMPA, Fla. -- For three weeks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have said, "The playoffs start now." But after back-to-back losses of 27-24 to both the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football and to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, they've shown they can't overcome the league's better football teams, with their lone signature win still being a Week 6 upset over the Green Bay Packers. As they fall to 7-5 heading into the bye week, they look like a fringe playoff team with an uphill climb ahead to try to win Tom Brady a seventh Super Bowl title.
On one hand, they lost each of the past two games by just three points -- no small feat against the Chiefs after being down 17-0. But the lack of pressure on Patrick Mahomes, the unnecessary deep ball shots that resulted in wild misses for Brady and his receivers, and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles leaving Carlton Davis one-on-one with receiver Tyreek Hill -- coupled with the missed tackles last week -- got them into this hole.
QB breakdown: The synergy needed to execute Bruce Arians' offense still isn't there consistently, even though there were glimmers of hope in the game. The high volume of deep shots -- and this is on playcaller Byron Leftwich just as much as it's on Brady and his receivers for the execution -- look reckless and unnecessary for a QB who's made a living of carving up teams underneath.
Brady took a deep shot to Mike Evans on the opening drive on second-and-6 on a go route and missed, then put too much air under a third-down pass to Antonio Brown on their second possession. He did manage to hit Rob Gronkowski on a 29-yard completion, setting up a 37-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown by Ronald Jones in the second quarter. Brady also found Gronkowski on a deep crossing route (24.2 air yards) for 48 yards to open up the second half, setting up a field goal, and found an outstretched Chris Godwin on a 44-yard deep pass.
But Brady was picked off by Bashaud Breeland on the very next play on a pass intended for Scotty Miller on the sideline. Brady was picked off again by Tyrann Mathieu at the end of the third quarter on a pass intended for Evans. Brady has been intercepted seven times during a four-game span for the first time since 2011. His most during a four-game span is eight in 2002.
Brady did find Evans at the beginning of the fourth quarter for a 31-yard touchdown to make it 27-17, and again for 7 yards with just under five minutes to play to pull the Bucs within three.
Biggest hole in the game plan: The Bucs had no answers for the speed of Hill in the absence of Jamel Dean, their fastest and most athletic cornerback who was out with a concussion. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles left Davis, known for his physicality and not speed, one-on-one with Hill, who beat him badly on 75-yard and 44-yard touchdowns, and in the third quarter on a 20-yard touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone (his help, Antoine Winfield Jr., didn't arrive in time).
The defense did have some bright spots. They shut down Clyde Edwards-Helaire, as run stopping remains their bread and butter, and they made three big red-zone stops. On second-and-1 at the 1-yard line in the first quarter, Davis batted down an end-zone pass on a double reverse, with solid coverage on third-and-1 to force a field goal. In the second quarter, on first-and-goal at the Tampa Bay 8, Shaq Barrett notched a sack-forced fumble with Will Gholston making the recovery. And just before halftime, Mahomes was flushed three times from the pocket on a drive that stalled at the Tampa Bay 11.
Two second-half interceptions -- from safety Jordan Whitehead and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting -- were negated by penalties. Whitehead's was negated by an offside penalty by Ndamukong Suh and Murphy-Bunting's by a roughing-the-passer call on Jason Pierre-Paul when the Bucs were down 27-17.
Looking ahead: The Bucs are now finally through the meat of their schedule, with their four remaining opponents all below .500 with a combined 17-27 record (counting the Atlanta Falcons twice). They also got some help in the NFC with the Arizona Cardinals' loss to the New England Patriots, dropping them to 6-5. The Bucs would be the sixth seed if the season ended today.