TAMPA — Like great teams are prone to do, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a game on Thursday night that they had every right to lose.
Bad hands. Bad penalties. Bad coverage. This was part of the story that nearly led to an embarrassing disaster as the Bucs opened defense of their Super Bowl crown with a 31-29 verdict against the Dallas Cowboys that had a lot of good fortune wrapped around that championship grit.
In a word, the 2021 debut can be described thusly: Buc-Ugly.
You can hear Bruce Arians now.
This is how you lose, fellas. In September and especially in January.
Boy, Arians, the Bucs straight-shooting coach, certainly has some fresh material to hammer home messages about what it will take to make another championship run.
Still, the Bucs won on a night that Tom Brady threw two picks and was nearly upstaged by the other quarterback on the field — Dak Prescott, in his first game back after suffering the gruesome ankle injury that ended his 2020 season.
They won because, well, Brady made a few special throws at the right time and was his typical clutch self in crunch time.
He connected with Antonio Brown for a 47-yard touchdown that quickly got the lead back in the second quarter, found Rob Gronkowski for a couple of touchdowns (that’s 100, including the playoffs, for the big tight end). And there were other sweet passes that didn’t show up in the box score. Early in the game, he dropped a tear-drop dime to Brown for an over-the-shoulder sideline catch. Late in the game, he found Leonard Fournette — or rather Fournette found the ball, leaping above the defender as if snagging a rebound — to save Brady and the Bucs. At least temporarily.
Minutes later, with the Bucs seemingly in control and marching toward the end zone, Chris Godwin caught a pass inside the 10 and spun forward to the goal line. Yet Godwin, who minutes earlier dropped a deep third-down strike, fumbled to give the Cowboys a revival.
Dallas scratched out a drive that resulted in Greg Zeurlein’s 48-yard field goal that gave Dallas a 29-28 lead with 1:24 on the clock.
That set the stage for one last gasp drive to win — or else — with some last-minute Brady magic.
And one more chance for Godwin to redeem himself. Done. His 24-yard catch on a sideline stop route set up the game-winning, 36-yard field goal from Ryan Succop with two seconds left.
Bucs win. But whew.
Which reminds us: Has anybody seen Ronald Jones II lately? The running back never got off the bench after fumbling to start a drive in the second quarter — which gift-wrapped a Dallas touchdown and was the first of two one-and-out drives that the Bucs would rue. The other drive involved a running back’s gaffe, too, as Brady’s pass in the flat glanced off Leonard Fournette’s hands for a Trevon Diggs interception that gave the Cowboys a 16-14 lead.
Surrounding the two turnovers, the snap-count equation went like this: Dallas 17, Tampa Bay 2.
It was that kind of a night for the Bucs. Hardly pretty. But sufficient enough. Barely.