TAMPA, Fla. -- In the final seconds, all the hopes and disappointments of the Buccaneers' season were present in the huddle. The offense had sputtered and not managed even one touchdown. There had been drops, and miscommunications and a lack of creativity and juice. An already-broken offense looked utterly shattered.
But there were 44 seconds left against the Los Angeles Rams and the offense had the ball and it almost felt like a surprise to see Tom Brady was standing in that huddle, too. His travails, personal and professional, had been the throughline of this mystifying first half of the Bucs' season, and even the Tampa Bay fans, who had booed the offense with each failed play on Sunday, might have momentarily forgotten that there remains, even now, no quarterback anybody should want more at such a moment. He is, after all the early struggles, still Brady. And he is still here. He just needed to show them. And perhaps himself.
That final drive looked nothing like the rest of the night, or even much of this season. It looked, mostly, like a page torn from the very large book of Brady's career moments. It started with a pass deep down the middle of the field for 28 yards to tight end Cade Otton, the Bucs' longest offensive play of the day. Then it had pace, Brady running the no-huddle offense with a series of dink-and-dunk passes gashing the Rams' prevent defense, a spike and a pass interference in the end zone that gave the Bucs first-and-goal at the 1. And there was the elusive touchdown, a play-action pass to Otton again. The Bucs had won 16-13, vaulted into first place in the NFC South and potentially saved their season.
Most of all, it might have reminded the Bucs that they can do this, that their quarterback can do this, and that all is not yet lost. In fact, it was Brady's 55th game-winning drive, an NFL record. Six plays, 60 yards, 35 seconds and one large anvil removed.
Coach Todd Bowles, already under some fire for how the season has gone sideways, let out a long exhale as he made his way to the locker room. Brady jogged off the field, flashing a thumbs up.
A few minutes later, Brady strode to the dais, looked out at the reporters with a grin and announced, "That was awesome!" as he pounded the lectern. "That was f------ awesome."
Not much has been awesome, or even worth a grin, for the Bucs this season and, at 4-5, they are still playing far below expectations by any Brady-familiar metric. The play-calling of offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich has been publicly questioned by even other members of the coaching staff. The absences that have accrued, from guard Ali Marpet, to tight end Rob Gronkowski, to perhaps the underappreciated Bruce Arians, have eroded the Bucs' scoring power. Every point seems to come with the difficulty that usually accompanies a tooth extraction.
But after losing five of their last six games, the most recent of which left Brady sitting at his locker staring into space, the Bucs needed a drive like the one they got on Sunday. They needed, as much as anything, an exorcism. The locker room had been utterly silent for weeks, but on Sunday it was filled with music and shouting and relief.
"It felt like it used to," said receiver Scotty Miller, in an unexpectedly wistful summation of the season.
"A lot of this is just our morale. Our swagger. Our confidence."
A lot of this is still the offense. How else to explain Julio Jones failing to go all the way in motion, even as Brady was waving him on? Or the four yards -- total -- the Bucs had in the third quarter. Or the fact that they have scored more than 21 points only twice this season, and both of those games were losses. The Bucs still cannot run, accumulating just 51 yards on 20 carries. They are averaging just 60.7 rushing yards per game, the fewest in the Super Bowl era. And Brady is still throwing far too many passes, with 58 this week (he completed 36 for 280 yards). He became the first player in history to throw for 100,000 yards, a milestone that would have seemed very hollow but for that last drive. A win is a win, but the Bucs didn't solve all of their problems on Sunday. They did buy themselves more time to fix them, though.
The victory was a product, more than anything, of a defense that held the Rams' similarly anemic offense at bay over and over again -- the Rams converted just 4 of 15 third-down attempts -- and the astounding punting of Jake Camarda, who had one punt go 74 yards, earning him the game ball.
The Bucs, though, are built around Brady, are built for Brady, and as long as the offense is sputtering, it is fair to wonder why and whether the Bucs can survive it to make the playoffs. Brady did not come out of retirement for anything less than a shot at another Super Bowl. They needed a victory to keep that goal within reach and also to quiet all the questions -- internal and external -- that had begun to spring up around the Bucs.
As soon as the pass interference was called that gave the Bucs first-and-goal from the 1-yard line on their final drive, Brady immediately indicated he would go to Otton. Asked about the play, Brady quickly lauded Leftwich.
"Byron and I have a great relationship, we talk about a lot," he said. "I like that play. I told him and he said 'Yes, go for it.' "
Said Otton: "We knew we had that in us."
In a particularly topsy-turvy NFL season, even the best teams in the league have had clunkers. The Bucs have had more than a few. The Bucs needed a spark, and Miller wondered if this might be it.
Maybe. Mostly, they needed to see what was still possible. And who can still make it possible. They needed to remember that Brady is still Brady.
"We always have a chance with him," Bowles said. "We love the guy to death."