TAMPA — It felt like 2016 again.
Mike Evans beat Richard Sherman. The defense forced interceptions. The kicker made his kicks.
The offense complemented the defense, and the defense complemented the offense. The offense didn’t turn the ball over and force the defense to defend a short field. In return, the defense kept the 49ers off the scoreboard. For the first time in a month, the offense didn’t have to try to overcome an insurmountable deficit.
In the Bucs’ 27-9 win Sunday, things worked the way they should work, the way they used to work.
There was love all around
But I never heard it singing
No, I never heard it at all
Till there was you
There was That Moment, of course. There always is. No matter how much Mom and Dad assure you there is no such thing as monsters, you know better. There’s a turnover hiding in the closet. Or a touchdown waiting under the bed.
That Moment came at the beginning of the second half when the 49ers, trailing 13-6, tied the game.
Until they didn’t.
Officials reviewed Jeff Wilson’s 9-yard run on first and goal and determined that Wilson collapsed under the weight of Brent Grimes’ piggyback-style tackle before reaching the end zone.
Even after the reversal, a touchdown seemed inevitable. The 49ers had been averaging more than 7 yards per carry. The defense clamped down, however, stopping San Francisco on consecutive goal-line runs. On fourth down, the 49ers stopped themselves when tight end George Kittle jumped before the snap, resulting in a penalty that prompted coach Kyle Shanahan to take the offense off the field and settle for a field goal.
In a refreshing deviation from the norm, the Bucs offense dropped the hammer on its next drive, going 75 yards in six plays for the put-away touchdown. If you had to pick one play that represented how well Jameis Winston played Sunday, it would be his 34-yard pass to Evans on that drive. When the pass blocking on the right side of the offensive line deteriorated, Winston rolled away from the pressure and threw a touch pass to Evans that traveled no more than 15 yards. It was special only for its simplicity.
“That was just a methodical-type game,” coach Dirk Koetter said. “In the NFL, part of winning is not losing. (It’s) not beating yourself.”
Winning. By not losing. It felt like 2016 again.
There was a time during that season, too, when the Bucs seemed lost. They were 3-5 and had just gotten smoked by the Falcons on Thursday Night Football. Then they thumped the Bears and strung together five straight wins. It wasn’t always sexy, but they limited giveaways, forced takeaways and either jumped out to early leads or kept games close. They waited for their opponents to beat themselves.
If you’re not ready to let go of this season, if you’re hoping that the Bucs beat the odds and make the playoffs, this is the formula. But while 2016 is guidepost, it also is a warning sign.
Much of Tampa Bay’s success during that stretch can be attributed to football randomness. The defense’s rate of takeaways and third-down stops were unsustainably high. The Bucs were winning games with smoke and mirrors. The 9-7 finish that season inspired unjustified optimism and led many to believe Tampa Bay’s rebuild was farther along than it actually was.
In reality, Sunday’s win means very little. The Bucs beat an undermanned and lethargic team. Granted, it counts as much as any other win. They don’t get partial credit. They have to deal with injuries and schedule issues, too.
The takeaway, though — and the lesson from 2016 — is this: If you want to know what’s ahead, be careful not to see what you feel.
NFL standings: Tampa Bay edition
With the 49ers, Cardinals, Raiders, Jets and Giants all losing Sunday, the order of the top of the 2019 NFL draft remains unchanged. The Bucs lost by winning; they fell from seventh to 10th. Though they’re technically in last place in the NFC South, they trail the Falcons in the draft order because Atlanta has the same win-loss record despite an easier schedule.
1. 49ers (2-9)
2. Cardinals (2-9)
3. Raiders (2-9)
4. Jets (3-8)
5. Giants (3-8)
6. Jaguars (3-8)
7. Falcons (4-7)
8. Lions (4-7)
9. Bills (4-7)
10. Bucs (4-7)
• Evans has more than 1,000 receiving yards, and there are still five games left to play. He’s on pace to shatter Mark Carrier’s three-decade-old team record of 1,422 yards.
• DeSean Jackson had another quiet game. While Winston targeted him eight times — as often as Evans — the pair connected on only three passes for 19 yards. Jackson didn’t stick around for postgame pleasantries, bolted off the field faster than the officiating crew and was out of the locker room in a hurry. Who has time for questions when you have to formulate a cryptic social media post? Jackson on Instagram few hours later:
God, by the way, has been making Bucs fans wait for a playoff game since the 2007 season.
• First-round draft pick Vita Vea had the best game of his young career, recording a sack and three tackles for loss.
“It felt really good going out there,” the defensive tackle said. “I wasn’t thinking much — going out there and just playing.”
That’s not going to be enough for Derwinists, the fans who continue to blast the Bucs for drafting Vea over former Florida State safety Derwin James. For the Chargers, James has 3.5 sacks, two interceptions and nine passes defensed.
It’s true that Vea hasn’t had the impact that James has had — and maybe he never will — but it’s important to note that Vea has played a grand total of eight NFL games.
• And here come the Panthers. They’re a whole other beast. Against the Seahawks on Sunday, running back Christian McCaffrey became the first player in team history to gain 100 rushing yards and 100 receiving yards. Only 18 other players in NFL history — and four in the past decade — have gained 100 rushing yards and 100 receiving yards and scored multiple touchdowns in a game.
• The Panthers are 5-0 at home, including a 42-28 win over the Bucs on Nov. 4, but 1-5 on the road.
What I got right
Circadian rhythms are a thing. The trip across the country to play a 1 p.m. EST was too significant of a disadvantage for the 49ers to overcome. They scored fewer points than average and allowed more points than average. They committed two turnovers (in line with their per-game average) and eight penalties (more than their per-game average).
What I got wrong
I expected Kittle to be more of a factor. He caught only six passes for 48 yards. He came into the game averaging 15.5 yards per catch.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.