It was, without a doubt, one of the most embarrassing moments of Tampa Bay’s 2020 season.
In a whirlwind first quarter, Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill reeled in seven catches for 203 yards and two touchdowns, shredding a Bucs secondary that looked hopelessly outmatched. To punctuate his dominant period of play, Hill flashed the peace – or “deuces” – sign to Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. on his first touchdown, then back-flipped into the end zone on his second score of the game.
It was the move of a Super Bowl champion playing with all the confidence in the world and the ring to prove he was a world beater. Those were two things the Bucs didn’t have back in Week 12, and it showed.
Bucs FS Antoine Winfield, Jr. and Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill – Photo by: USA Today
The team was reeling a bit after dropping two of their last three games, both to quality NFC teams that the Bucs were supposed to prove they could play with by November. And after allowing a 17-point first quarter and a big early deficit to the Chiefs, the Bucs’ goals of competing for a Super Bowl had never looked more in doubt as the team’s record slipped to 7-5 on the season.
Little did we know en route to Tampa Bay beating Kansas City in Super Bowl LV, 31-9, that even in the midst of losing three of four in November, the Bucs were finding their way. Sometimes the most growth is found on the other side of adversity, but the Bucs we’ve become accustomed to over the years never seemed to reach the point of full bloom, instead withering and dying in the spotlight. Bucs fans even invented little catch phrases to cope with the disappointment, with Tampa Bay’s failures in big moments against top competition simply falling under the “It’s A Bucs Life” moniker.
But in 2020, all of that changed. Even in the midst of a troubling midseason slump, it was changing. The Bucs were getting socked in the mouth by several bullies, and they were going to have to decide what type of team they were going to be.
Were they going to be the “same old Bucs” and fade to the fringe of the NFC race for a Super Bowl? Or was this a new era in Tampa Bay, where the bullied and battered prepared to rise from the mat and swing back until they connected with a knockout blow?
Coming out of the bye week, wins over the final four regular season games gave the Bucs some much-needed confidence, but there were many questions still to be answered. How would they handle the spotlight of the playoffs? Could they overcome a vaunted Washington defensive line that was working opponents at the time? How were they going to top a Saints team that had owned them for years, winning five straight over Tampa Bay?
Then, one-by-one the questions were answered, the doubters were silenced and the identity of the Bucs’ culture change began to take shape. No longer was this a team that opponents could afford to not take seriously. No longer was this a Lovie Smith or Mike Smith defense that could be pushed around, a young offensive line that was consistently bullied, and a quarterback that created more adversity for the team than he overcame.
These 2020 Bucs? They became a whole different breed.
Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Photo by: USA Today
These were the Bucs who cared not for New Orleans’ dominance over them in the past, instead putting together a remarkable game plan that stifled Sean Payton’s offense and ended Drew Brees’ career with yet another playoff loss sooner than expected. Outside of the result of the game, moments in the process like Devin White and Sean Murphy-Bunting’s violent post interception stiff arms, Ryan Jensen antagonizing Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone with several pancakes, and Lavonte David pointing at Alvin Kamara on the sideline and saying “I want you!” were some of the highlights.
Different Bucs team. Different Bucs mindset.
It wasn’t just a matter of out-executing the Saints, although that was obviously the first step. It was how the Bucs did it that mattered so much, running nine straight plays to end the game and drain the final four-plus minutes off the clock.
It was a soul-snatching, signature win, after which Carlton Davis dubbed the Bucs defensive backs “Grave Diggers” for their performance in holding Michael Thomas to zero catches on four targets. Think any Bucs cornerback in recent years has had the confidence to slap a label on their position group like that, and then go out on the field and back it up?
These were the Bucs who didn’t back down for a second, even in the face of an impressive comeback effort by the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, forcing league MVP Aaron Rodgers into two of his worst games of the season while pulverizing the offensive line in front of him. Sparked by Vita Vea’s return, the Bucs defensive line tossed around the Packers O-line up in Lambeau Field, ringing up five sacks and consistently forcing Rodgers into uncomfortable spots.
After all the talk about how Tampa Bay’s 38-10 victory over Green Bay in the regular season was a fluke, the old Bucs might have believed the lie. Or worse, it might have caused them to relax based on the overwhelming result of the two teams first meeting. Instead, it galvanized this 2020 Bucs team and coaching staff, exploiting the Packers with a very different game plan on both sides of the ball.
Yet it was the victory over the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV that really showed just how much has changed in Tampa Bay over the past year, or even two years since Bruce Arians took over.
This wasn’t just a victory.
Bucs ILB Devin White – Photo by: USA Today
It was a complete annihilation of one of the best pro football teams I’ve ever seen. And, despite that challenge, there was absolutely no doubt in the Bucs players’ minds that they were up to the challenge.
“We talked about beating them bad,” White said after the game. “We knew they wasn’t physical enough. You know, they’re like, real gimmicky on offense and we don’t play like that, man. We like smash-mouth football and we like coming down here and getting in them trenches. That’s what we’re built off. That’s what we’re the No. 1 rush defense in the league and that’s why on the back end, we strapped up, man. We knew we wanted to blow them out. We knew whatever we gave them in that first game, it was because they got what we gave them, and Todd Bowles wasn’t letting that happen this game.”
We talked about beating them bad.
Not just beating them. Beating them BAD.
The confidence to dominate the best and feel zero need to apologize for it. I love it.
And it was evident all throughout the game. There was White standing on the edge of the sideline screaming at Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu as the Bucs drove for their second touchdown of the game.
There was Jensen again, getting under Chris Jones’ skin and drawing a crucial, 15-yard personal foul penalty to get the Bucs out of a third-and-7 situation.
There was Tom Brady, after the Bucs third touchdown, chirping right in Mathieu’s face and even chasing him back out to the middle of the field from his own sideline after Mathieu took the trash talking too far for the star quarterback’s liking.
Bucs QB Tom Brady and Chiefs SS Tyrann Mathieu – Photo by: USA Today
And of course there was the most iconic moment, a still image that will live in Bucs infamy, as Antoine Winfield, Jr., one of the youngest Bucs on the roster, perfectly illustrated the cultural and confidence shift that has taken place in Tampa Bay this season – especially after the bye week as the team rattled off a franchise-record eight straight wins.
After breaking up a fourth down desperation heave for Hill, who was completely taken out of the game by Todd Bowles’ Cover 2 and Cover 4 schemes, Winfield bent over, looked Hill square in the face as the wide receiver picked himself up off the dirt, and flashed that “deuces” sign right in his eyes.
“It’s something I had to do,” Winfield said. “When we played earlier, he back-flipped in front of my face and gave me the peace sign. So it was only right that I gave him the peace sign back to him. It felt amazing to do that, I’m not even gonna lie.”
Goodnight, sweet prince.
This party is over, and the new-look Bucs ended it in super fashion.
At the beginning of the season I thought the Bucs were one of the most talented teams in the NFL, but I wondered internally if they were too nice. Did they have the edge as individuals and as a team to want to embarrass an opponent when they took the field? To not be satisfied with just a win, but to want to dominate them so thoroughly that they can’t even find the end zone?
I fully believe football is mostly about scheme and talent, but I’m not naive enough to assume that the culture of an organization and the mentality of players doesn’t matter, especially when facing the big dogs in the league. Did the Bucs have what it takes in that area to be the best?
Sunday night proved, again, that these 2020 Bucs are indeed “built on that,” as White would say.
Bucs FS Antoine Winfield, Jr. and Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill – Photo by: USA Today
As the Super Bowl LV champions prepare for an offseason that promises to be full of moves that retain key players and keep that cultural transformation intact, the Bucs will now be one of a few favorites to reach Super Bowl LVI next year in Los Angeles, rather than the upstart long shots who won three straight games despite being underdogs in Vegas. There will be a target on their back, the burden one must shoulder as champions of the greatest sport in the world.
But now, Tampa Bay is ready for such a challenge. The Bucs have been sharpened and molded for this opportunity, knocked down by the bully over and over, only to pick themselves up off the mat and swing back, delivering knockout blow after knockout blow during the entire postseason.
“It’s A Bucs Life” has a whole new meaning and mindset now.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
PewterReport.com prides itself on being the most complete, comprehensive news source covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and delivering inside scoop on the team found nowhere else.