The Tom Brady-Buccaneers era ends with an absolute dud in playoff loss to Cowboys

BOSTON — The entirety of the 2022 season has been a clunky, sloppy, unsatisfactory slog for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was fitting, then, that Monday night’s playoff game — and, most certainly, Tom Brady’s final game with a pirate flag on the side of his head — followed suit.

The Bucs joined the short list of sub-.500 teams to have hosted a playoff game in NFL history, but it was hardly an advantage, as the Cowboys nonchalantly rolled to a 31-14 victory on Monday in Tampa. (And it wasn’t that close.)

For anyone who watched the uninspiring Buccaneers this season, the result was far from a surprise. But it was nevertheless significant as it signified the very likely end to Tom Brady’s career as a member of the Buccaneers. 

With his contract expiring, Brady is set to either retire from the game (for real this time … possibly), or hit free agency for just the second time of his 23-year career. Either way, with the coaching issues, personnel issues, and really the vibes issues in Tampa, it’s an extremely safe bet to believe Brady has played his final game as a Buc.

In this one, Brady wasn’t the problem, per se, but he wasn’t helping. And his end-zone interception early in the second quarter was a back-breaking moment for a Bucs team that had slim hopes to begin with.

Had Brady pocketed that ill-advised pass, then Tampa would have come away with points on that drive — maybe seven, maybe three. Considering Dallas only had six points on the board at that moment, perhaps an alternative reality exists where the Bucs made this a competitive game.

That, however, is a stretch. Especially considering everything that happened after that pick.

The Cowboys scored touchdowns on their next three drives, giving them four consecutive touchdown drives. (They only led 24-0, thanks to Brett Maher inexplicably missing four PATs.) Dak Prescott finished the game with four touchdowns, no picks, and 305 passing yards, plus a rushing TD.

Meanwhile the Bucs did this after the turnover:

Punt (one first down)
End of half (one first down)
Punt (three-and-out)
Punt (two first downs)

Considering the Bucs went three-and-out on their first two possessions before throwing the pick, it was a painful evening for the team wearing white, through and through.

When the Bucs gained possession late in the third quarter, trailing 24-0, Brady was 15-for-33 for just 125 yards with no touchdowns, an interception, and a 43.1 passer rating.

Brady was short-arming throws, making passes to nobody, and … oddly throwing on the run on designed rollouts. Nothing was really clicking for Brady and the Bucs offense, and that’s putting it lightly.

The Bucs finally put together a scoring drive — 10 plays, 95 yards, capped with a 30-yard rainbow thrown by Brady to Julio Jones. But the two-point conversion failed, and the Bucs carried a 24-6 deficit into the fourth quarter. But that first bit of positivity for the Bucs was neutralized immediately with a nine-play, 66-yard touchdown drive that ended with zero Buccaneers even trying to cover CeeDee Lamb on fourth down for the easiest touchdown of the receiver’s life.

That score — plus Maher’s first successful PAT of the night — made it a 31-6 Cowboys lead with just over 10 minutes left to play. The game was over. 

As was the Bucs’ season.

As was Brady’s Bucs career.

Most likely.

Brady finished the game with two touchdowns and 351 yards, showing that he’s still capable of things that nobody has ever been able to do at his age. (The most passing yards by a 45-year-old player in an entire season in NFL history was 77 yards.) And it easily could have been 400 yards and three touchdowns, if only Mike Evans had been able to haul in a well-thrown deep ball late in the fourth quarter.

And for the 45-year-old Brady, what he did this season from a physical and measurably objective standpoint was unbelievable.

He led the league in pass attempts and completions, which shouldn’t be the case for a man five to six years beyond the age of anyone else who’s played the position reasonably well. He had the third-most passing yards and the eighth-most touchdown passes, proving that he very much can still play in the NFL.

But with injuries along the offensive line and in the receiving corps, a suboptimal tight end situation, and just an evident lack of positive energy, Brady and the Bucs never resembled the unit that won a Super Bowl in 2020 and damn well could have won a second in 2021. It just wasn’t there this year.

Brady bears some of that responsibility, no doubt. He does, after all, play the most important position in team sports, and his ability to lift teams — including the 2020 Bucs — to heightened levels is part of what makes him … him. This year, he wasn’t that guy.

How much of that stems from the strange offseason last year — with Brady’s fake retirement, Bruce Arians’ fake retirement, Rob Gronkowski’s real retirement, etc. — is hard to say. But after going 29-10 in Brady’s first two seasons in Tampa, the Bucs finished this year with eight wins and 10 losses. It was never very good.

Now, we wait. 

Physically, Tom Brady can stay play football. Mentally … who knows? Considering everything Brady’s been through this season in his personal life, it’s likely that even he isn’t quite sure. 

But Monday’s loss means this joyless, unpleasant season has come to  an end for Brady and the Bucs. Now, he’ll have some extra time to decide if he wants to explore his options in the NFL — Las Vegas, Miami, San Francisco … New England? — for another season.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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