TAMPA, Fla. -- Before we pick this one apart, and there’s a ton to work with on that end, let’s be clear about one thing: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a football game before a prime-time audience on Monday night.
They defeated the Indianapolis Colts, 24-17, at Raymond James Stadium, put together their first three-game winning streak since Raheem Morris took over as coach in 2009, sold out a home game for the first time in a long time, and also kept pace with the New Orleans Saints (3-1) atop the NFC South.
Let’s pause with the positives right there, because the way things transpired Monday night left lots of room to wonder whether the Bucs really are ready for prime time and whether they really can hang with the Saints for the long haul. Let’s turn it over to rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who capsulized his fourth NFL game accurately.
“Things were very ugly,’’ said Clayborn, who was credited with a sack, two quarterback hurries and a tackle for loss. “We battled through it. It was sloppy. But it’s about whoever comes out with a win, and we did.’’
With time, the ugliness Clayborn talked about might fade. If the Bucs keep winning, this one will look a lot better in the standings come playoff time.
“We’ve got a goal,’’ said second-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who finished with a team-high six tackles, one sack, three tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries. “We want to win our division.’’
That’s a great goal, but the Bucs aren’t going to win against the Saints -- and maybe not even against the Atlanta Falcons or the Carolina Panthers -- if they continue to play the way they did most of the night against the Colts. Let the record show that Indianapolis was not quarterbacked by Peyton Manning. Or even Kerry Collins.
They started Curtis Painter at quarterback. They were forced to play third-stringer Mike Tepper, signed off the practice squad a few days ago, at left tackle in the second half after injuries took their toll. The Colts also lost defensive tackle Eric Foster to an ankle injury that looked even more gruesome than most of the ugliness on the field.
Despite all that, the Colts (0-4) outplayed the Bucs much of the night. The Colts jumped out to a 10-0 lead and led 17-10 midway through the third quarter when Painter hit Pierre Garcon with a 59-yard touchdown pass. Tampa Bay’s tackling ability looked like that of a youth-league team on that play.
The Buccaneers were penalized 14 times for 106 yards. For the longest time the highlight of their offense seemed to be a short dump play to running back/fullback Earnest Graham. They ran that play a number of times and amassed 27 yards on three completions, although there were several passes to Graham that were called back because of penalties.
Speaking of penalties, there was a strange one in the final seconds of the first half. With the Colts leading 10-7, the Bucs tried to get a quick field goal as the clock ran down. Kicker Connor Barth actually got on the field and put the ball through the uprights.
But the field goal didn’t count because the Bucs were penalized for having 12 men on the field as they tried to get the offense off the field and the field-goal unit on it. That call led to a rather strange halftime scene. Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik, normally a pretty calm guy, came into the press box to talk to replay officials.
Without ever truly losing his temper or fully raising his voice, Dominik questioned the call. He argued that receiver Dezmon Briscoe was jumping off the field before the ball was snapped.
“It was as clear as day,’’ Dominik said loud enough to be overheard by a large portion of the media contingent. He also suggested the Colts had 12 men on the field as well. He later came back at the start of the third quarter and had a quieter and more diplomatic conversation with the officials.
But all the murkiness didn’t really clear up until running back LeGarrette Blount broke free on a 35-yard run for a touchdown up the middle with 3 minutes, 15 seconds left in the game. That’s when Tampa Bay scored the final points and took the lead for the first time.
“It wasn’t pretty at all times, but that’s kind of us,’’ said quarterback Josh Freeman, who completed 25 of 39 passes for 287 yards and a touchdown. “Whatever the adversity, we continue to play through the fourth quarter and persevere.’’
That’s been the story of Tampa Bay’s three victories and even their opening loss to Detroit. The Bucs start slowly, but they hang around and, more often than not, they’ve found a way to win it at the end.
That formula works against struggling teams like the Colts. But here’s the thing to keep in mind: Although the nation got to see the Bucs on Monday night, we still really don’t know what they’re all about.
We’re going to find out very soon. The Bucs travel to San Francisco on Sunday to play a 49ers team that’s started better than a lot of people expected. They then get to fly back across the country for a home game with the Saints, who are every bit as good as people expected. After that, the Bucs fly out of the country to take on the Chicago Bears in a “home game’’ in London on Oct. 23.
After that, they get a bye week before facing the Saints again -- in New Orleans.
Between now and then, we’ll find out what we didn’t find out Monday night. We’ll discover whether the Bucs are any good.
This is the NFL’s youngest team and there have been some positive signs. McCoy, Clayborn and a very young defensive line continue to show promise. Second-year receiver Preston Parker is becoming a playmaker. Blount can wear down a defense and Freeman usually seems to have a steady hand when it matters most.
“A win is a win,’’ center Jeff Faine said. “As long as we keep stacking them up, we’re headed in a positive direction.’’
Faine is absolutely right. But the wins aren’t going to be so easy to stack up in the coming weeks unless the Bucs take more steps in a positive direction. The wins aren’t going to come unless the Bucs do a lot of cleaning up quickly.