TAMPA, Fla. — They jogged toward the tunnel to cheers, not boos, this afternoon so different than so many that had come before in this strange season.
It was only halftime, and these Tampa Bay Buccaneers are far from a second-half team, but their 18-point lead over the sinking Atlanta Falcons felt safe, secure, in a place that knows horrors.
Fans clapped, coach Greg Schiano received praise, not a prickly reception, and the Bucs continued a quiet correction with the destination unknown.
“A really good effort by the guys,” Schiano said, following the Bucs’ 41-28 win, and it wasn’t that close. “I hope we can take some time to enjoy it.”
What to make of Sunday? The Falcons, so close to the Super Bowl last season, are a bad football team. They look like a shell of the group that many picked to repeat as NFC South champions, a shadow of the squad that had the potential to threaten the New Orleans Saints at the top of the division.
The Bucs, who could have imploded after the MRSA scares and Josh Freeman messes, after the near misses and doubts about Schiano’s future, have won consecutive games for the first time in 364 days.
That’s right. Tampa Bay has won two straight games for the first time since winning four from Oct. 25-Nov. 18, 2012.
There was a drought. Now, there’s relief.
“That was awesome,” Bucs quarterback Mike Glennon said with a smile. “A whole team effort: Offense, defense, special teams. All phases of the game.”
It took the Bucs 10 weeks to find their first victory, a quest that included pain on and off the field. It took six days after beating the troubled Miami Dolphins to secure their second, a needed result with difficult road tests ahead against the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers the next two weeks.
It’s hard to tell what this means. The past two games don’t erase the letdown, the embarrassment, of the first eight. Schiano’s future, at best, still appears murky.
Likely, he must split the next six games to gain some confidence that he could return. Likely, the Bucs must avoid blowouts against a string of NFC contenders — the Lions, Panthers, 49ers and Saints — to avoid a limp into the offseason. Likely, too much has been lost already for victories over Miami and Atlanta to mean much in the large picture.
But the two victories are upward movement, however small, something notable in a year with many downs. That’s more than what could be said two weeks ago.
“Coach issued a challenge to us,” Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “He said, ‘Are we going to have a Monday Night Football hangover or are we going to come out and keep building off the momentum from Monday night?’ It was a perfect setup to come out tired, (because we were) happy so much off getting our first win. Coach said, ‘Who are you going to be today?’ We just came out on fire.”
The smoke came from all angles. Each unit dished up a spark.
Offense: Rookie running back Bobby Rainey, claimed off waivers from the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 21, looked like Darren Sproles in rushing for 163 yards on 30 carries with three total touchdowns. He became the first player in franchise history with two rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown in the same game.
Defense: McCoy, who entered with three sacks, looked like a man possessed in earning that many Sunday. Tampa Bay failed to sack Matt Ryan in the first meeting between these teams in Week 7, but the Bucs’ constant pressure made life miserable for a familiar tormentor.
Special teams: Linebacker Dekoda Watson, bursting through the line, looked like an angry bull when blocking a punt deep in Atlanta territory in the third quarter. The sequence set up a seven-play, 20-yard touchdown drive that pushed Tampa Bay ahead 38-6.
“I anticipated me going in and doing my job,” Rainey said.
He did so, along with many others. Face it, part of you wishes you would have seen this all along.
The loose play.
The onside kick and fake field goal in the second quarter.
The confident quarterback who treated the field like a playground in throwing for 231 yards with two touchdowns.
The team that’s more smiles than stiff.
This felt normal Sunday, a reason to mark progress. For a stretch this fall, as recent as the debacle against Carolina in Week 8, attending a game here felt like walking into a mausoleum. There was a pall over the Bucs’ play, a sense of, “OK, what will go wrong next?”
They’re still flawed. But since their near-upset in Seattle, they’ve been less of a flop.
If anyone is searching for the NFL’s worst team, they’re wasting time by looking here.
“We stayed the course,” McCoy said. “I kept saying all year, ‘We always worked hard.’ We’ve never not worked hard. We haven’t done anything different the past two weeks. We’re just finishing games. That’s it.”
Music rang over the loudspeakers when players ran into the tunnel for good Sunday, after the Bucs had secured their second victory, after they had finished again. The choice was The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” an appropriate selection.
“I gotta feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night … That tonight’s gonna be a good night … That tonight’s gonna be a good, good night …”
The good times, here at last, are a welcome change.