When it comes to football IQ, the Bucs may be in a class of their own

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TAMPA — Like the team he just beat, the old guy was also one step ahead of the crowd on Sunday.

While players from the Bucs and Eagles were still glad-handing each other at midfield, while fans were still dancing and cheering in the aisles after a rare playoff game at Raymond James Stadium, Bruce Arians made a hustler’s getaway.

With an icepack wrapped around his ruptured Achilles tendon, the Tampa Bay coach hopped in a golf cart and rode away from the NFC’s wild card weekend in victorious splendor after the 31-15 victory.

With a driver beside him and tackle Donovan Smith wearing a stowaway’s smile in the backseat, Arians, 69, pointed and waved to fans as the cart disappeared into the stadium’s north tunnel.

This is what savvy looks like.

This is what four-plus decades of sideline experience, hundreds of NFL games, and a don’t-give-a-damn attitude looks like. This is also what victory looks like in Tampa Bay these days.

The Bucs beat the snot out of the Eagles because they have a more talented roster, but also because they played a much, much smarter football game.

They did not turn the ball over. They did not commit critical penalties. And, of even greater importance, they seemed to anticipate everything the Eagles were doing on both sides of the ball.

So how much value is there in having a smart, experienced team when the playoffs roll around?

“Oh, it’s huge,” Arians said. “We had one or two plays that weren’t (smart) but, man, for the most part — offensively especially — we’re playing really good football.”

The Eagles were better on third down, better on fourth down and better in the red zone. They gained more yards per play and were only 10 yards behind the Bucs in total yards on the afternoon.

Yet the game was never close.

This is because the Bucs avoided big mistakes and took advantage every time Philadelphia screwed up. This is because Tom Brady dissected the defense with a variety of quick, short passes in the first quarter, then started throwing deeper when the Eagles grew more desperate.

This is because defensive coordinator Todd Bowles took away Philadelphia’s league-leading rushing attack by stacking people near the line of scrimmage and forcing the Eagles to put the game in the hands of quarterback Jalen Hurts.

This is because Arians has enough gravitas and enough fearlessness to push, prod and criticize players in the locker room even when the Bucs win games in the regular season.

The result is Tampa Bay has become a team that does not just have the talent to win, but also the expectation and the discipline to win in the postseason.

“Football IQ is huge,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “We have so many veterans on our team from the defensive side of the ball all the way to the offensive side of the ball and the coaching staff, too. Just knowing where to be and understanding the game of football helps out big time.

“Just knowing that extra step ahead of your opponent in a (pivotal) moment can save the game.”

In the past 13 months, the Bucs have won almost as many postseason games under Arians (five) as they had under 11 different coaches (six) in the previous 44 years.

A lot of that is Brady, sure. The Bucs have played turnover-free football in four of their last six games, which is no simple feat when you’re averaging about 42 passes a week.

A lot of that is also a defense where Jason Pierre-Paul, Lavonte David, Ndamukong Suh and William Gholston are all on the other side of 30.

But a lot of that is the level of expectation and accountability created by Arians when he showed up in 2019 and then reinforced by Brady’s arrival in 2020.

The Bucs are now 14-1 in games played after Dec. 1 the past two seasons.

“It’s hard to beat us when we score points and don’t give it to the other team,” Arians said.

There is a reason owners and general managers around the league are eager to talk to Bowles and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich about jobs. And there is a reason the oddsmakers in Las Vegas have Tampa Bay just a hair behind Green Bay as the favorite to win the NFC.

The Bucs have earned a reputation as a team that knows how to win, which explains why they are 6-0 in games decided by seven points or fewer this season.

Of course, none of this means the Bucs are on a fast track back to the Super Bowl. A better defense will take away Brady’s short passing game, which means a receiver other than Mike Evans needs to step up. And Pierre-Paul has been largely inconsequential since hurting his shoulder, which poses a pass rush problem.

But what Sunday’s runaway victory proved is that the Bucs still have elite talent, and still have the smarts to stay one step ahead.

Or one golf cart ahead, as the case may be.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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