Optimism from the last WFT-Tampa game has waned for rematch


Tuesday marks the 10-month anniversary of the thrilling Washington-Tampa Bay NFC wild card game that took place at FedEx Field in January. Have you purchased your commemorative cake yet? Or are you snagging it from the bakery after work?

Of course, no one is celebrating such an inconsequential milestone anyway but even if there was a movement to do so, Burgundy and Gold fans wouldn't be in the mood.

That's because the vibe around Ron Rivera's club coming out of that playoff matchup on Jan. 9 couldn't be more different than the one heading into Sunday's rematch. 

Though Rivera's recounting of the postseason battle with Tom Brady is certainly more favorable toward his team than the reality — he's often remarked how his squad nearly knocked off the eventual Super Bowl champs while ignoring Brady's juicy stat line and the Bucs' gaudy overall offensive output — there was serious momentum after that loss about where he was guiding the organization.

Yes, the Jack Del Rio-led defense wasn't able to disrupt Brady much at all, but that unit did figure things out in the franchise's 5-2 finish to the 2020 regular season and was especially stacked up front with young talent. With a free agent addition here and a draft choice there, the group would be ready for more winter football.

As for quarterback? Well, Taylor Heinicke almost defeated Brady, right? So, going off of that, Washington's roster was definitely in a spot to support an unheralded passer if need be, should Rivera and the front office have trouble scooping the long-term answer during the offseason.


Then there was Rivera himself, the leader's leader who was strong enough to help his team recover from a 1-5 start despite a cancer diagnosis and the subsequent grueling treatments. Sure, the first month or so of his tenure with Washington was disappointing, but he never wavered or lost the trust of his players and that measured approach seemed to be exactly what this moribund operation needed.

Put all of that together — a young, surging defense, a bounty of avenues for locating a QB (plus the hope that a fine one would be sufficient enough) and a balanced coach in Rivera — and it really did feel as if Washington was onto something.

Ah, the memories.

With Brady set to return to Landover, Md. this weekend, that appreciation for Washington's direction has lapsed. 

The defense that was supposed to be the stout foundation has more resembled a moldy, half-flooded basement. 

The choice to plug in a stopgap quarterback, supported by many at the time, has only exacerbated the importance of identifying a true answer at the position.

And the boss who appeared so steady and locked in on where he was going suddenly is being questioned about everything.

After practice on Monday, Rivera assessed his rebuild of Washington and how the discussion about it has shifted because of 2021's mishaps.

"I still think this team's going to develop and grow and be what I believe it can be," Rivera said. "Just because you take a step backwards, it doesn't mean you're not learning and growing."

"There's a lot for us to do," he later added.

Barring an unforeseen upset of Tampa Bay on Sunday — the Bucs are 10-point favorites on the road, according to PointsBet — Washington will be pushed even further into the abyss while Rivera inches closer to the many previous head coaches he'd been brought in to surpass.

It may be only the 10-month anniversary of the playoff tilt between Tampa Bay and Washington, but for one side it feels like 10 years — if not longer.