Buccaneers advance, but tenacious Washington provides wakeup call in wild-card round

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers better pay close attention in film sessions this week if they’re really serious about making a deep run in this postseason. What they’ll find is plenty of evidence of why nothing should be taken for granted in the playoffs. The Buccaneers just escaped what many expected to be an easy first-round test against the Washington Football Team. That good fortune had plenty to do with an unheralded opposing quarterback running out of time to ruin all their Super Bowl dreams.

The Buccaneers got what they wanted most on Saturday night, which was a 31-23 win over Washington in the NFC Super Wild Card round. Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke also gave the Bucs all they could handle and more, which was the major surprise of the evening. Heinicke never flinched when given the task of replacing injured starter Alex Smith in this game. In doing so, he gave Tampa more than enough to be concerned about as the Bucs wait to see who they’ll play next in the divisional round.

The Bucs certainly can take great pride in claiming the franchise’s first playoff win since they won the Super Bowl in the 2002 season. What they can’t do is deny that they have ample work ahead of them if they want another victory this year. As Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians said of Heinicke’s performance, “We weren’t tackling worth a s— the whole game. We finally got him when it mattered.”

Arians actually admitted the Bucs were hoping to see Smith in this contest. That rationale likely was based on the calf injury that had plagued Smith late in the regular season and ultimately sidelined him on Saturday. Arians suspected that Smith wouldn’t be that mobile with a gimpy leg. The head coach also had seen enough of Heinicke to know that the backup quarterback would be elusive as hell.

Turns out Arians was exactly right. Heinicke frustrated the Tampa Bay defenders with his scrambling (he gained 46 yards on six carries) and he did even more damage with his arm (completing 26-of-44 passes for 306 yards, one touchdown and interception). He even inspired his teammates by playing through a shoulder injury that nearly forced Washington to turn to a more obscure option under center, third-stringer Steven Montez. That determination made Heinicke the story of the game on a night when Tom Brady, a man with six Super Bowl rings, was making his first playoff start for Tampa Bay.

There were a handful of times when it felt as if the Bucs were primed to pull away in this contest. They never did because Heinicke wouldn’t allow it. “A lot of people have asked me what it feels like going up against the G.O.A.T., Tom Brady, but I didn’t really think about that this week,” said Heinicke, who was taking classes at Old Dominion before he was signed to Washington’s practice squad on Dec. 8. “I just focused on doing my job, getting completions, letting those guys do their thing. But looking back at the game in the next couple days, it’s going to be something that I’m really proud about. Everything that’s happened in this past month and a half, and to go out there and do that, I’m proud of myself.”

Heinicke’s play spoke to his resilience — he went from being undrafted in 2015 to spending time on four different teams before joining Washington last month — and this team’s willingness to keep fighting regardless of the circumstances. Washington has watched Rivera battle cancer and Smith return to the field after a gruesome broken leg nearly ended his career and his life two years ago. On the other hand, the quarterback’s performance once again raised familiar questions about the Bucs. They obviously have enough offense to challenge for a championship but their defense still looks vulnerable enough to hold them back.

The Buccaneers have often looked their worst when playing against top offenses. The New Orleans Saints, whom Tampa Bay could meet in the divisional round, have beaten the Bucs twice this year, including a 38-3 shellacking in the second meeting. The Kansas City Chiefs raced right past the Tampa Bay defense in the first quarter of the Bucs’ 27-24 loss, with quarterback Patrick Mahomes throwing for 462 yards and three touchdowns. Sure, the Bucs blew out Green Bay earlier this year but Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been on fire ever since.

If Heinicke can have his way with the Bucs defense, then imagine what a more seasoned quarterback could do next week. The good news for Tampa is that there is plenty of time to adjust. The Bucs defensive players admitted that it was difficult to prepare for Heinicke simply because there wasn’t much film on the quarterback (Heinicke only appeared in Washington’s 20-13 loss to Carolina on Dec. 27, after Rivera benched Dwayne Haskins). They had to adjust on the fly, which left them looking more disjointed as a unit.

“I think some of our guys — I don’t think veterans did, but some of our younger guys — might have relaxed when Alex Smith wasn’t playing,” Arians said. “I kind of kept preaching at them, ‘This kid can run, he can do a lot of things.’ He almost beat us with his legs. I’m never going to apologize for winning, and next week’s next week.”

The Bucs can take solace in knowing that their offense continues to show some encouraging signs. Running back Leonard Fournette produced his best game with the team, as he gained 93 yards on 19 carries and scored a touchdown. Wide receiver Mike Evans produced six receptions for 119 yards one week after sustaining a hyperextended knee in the season finale against Atlanta. Tight end Cameron Brate had a nice night (four catches for 80 yards) while wide receiver Antonio Brown continues to grow into his role (he had a 36-yard touchdown catch).

The Bucs weren’t perfect on offense but you could see the comfort level Brady has attained with all his weapons. A few weeks back, the Bucs struggled to start games fast and too often seemed unable to get everyone involved in the game plan. Now there’s more chemistry. This is a team that can explode for plenty of points when it starts to find a rhythm.

Tampa Bay would love to be relishing how that kind of firepower is coming together. Instead, they’re well aware of how easily those offensive numbers could’ve become trivial. “We’re thrilled with the win,” Brate said. “I hate to say that we’re relieved, but at this point we’re just pumped we got the win. No matter how ugly it was, no matter how many mistakes we made, a win’s a win this time of year.”

That really is a good point to remember. Playoff wins are hard to come by and style points don’t mean much in the end. The key to this time of year is finding a way to survive and advance. The smart teams understand that their opponents are going to fight just as hard to do the same thing, regardless of the hurdles they’re facing.

On the other hand, the Buccaneers will review the tape of this game and they’ll see how it easily it could’ve been lost. They’ll see a no-name quarterback making clutch play after clutch play and doing his best to keep pace with their own Hall-of-Fame signal-caller. The Bucs were good enough to handle such an obvious surprise on Saturday night. They won’t be so fortunate if they can’t improve on that effort in the next round.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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