TAMPA, Fla. – One year ago, quarterback Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers embarked on a three-game road playoff odyssey that ended at home with a Super Bowl championship at Raymond James Stadium.
A 6-seed last year, the Bucs, despite having Brady, were given a 15.2% chance of reaching the Super Bowl at the beginning of the postseason -- fifth of all playoff teams -- by ESPN Analytics. But as defending champions who finished the regular season 13-4 with the No. 2 seed (and tied for the best overall record) in the NFC, that changed this year.
Currently, ESPN Analytics gives the Bucs a 52.1% chance of reaching the conference championship and a 29.6% chance of making the Super Bowl, second only to the Green Bay Packers, who are 68.7% and 37.5%, respectively, in those departments.
Here’s a look at what to expect this weekend and the possibilities beyond.
While the top two seeded playoff teams no longer both get first-round byes (only the No. 1 seeds in each conference do), by defeating the Carolina Panthers last week -- and because the Los Angeles Rams lost to the San Francisco 49ers -- the No. 2-seeded Bucs will also host their second game if they win Sunday. If they reach the NFC Championship game and play anyone besides the Packers, they would also host that game.
The Bucs went 7-1 at home this year, second only to the No. 1-seeded Packers for the NFL’s best home record. Their 129-point margin at home was the league’s best.
They went 6-3 on the road, with a points margin of just 29. At home, they averaged 33.25 points per game this year, giving up an average of 17.13. On the road, they averaged 27.22 points and allowed 24.
Health has been a problem
Last year, the Bucs entered the playoffs as one of the healthiest teams in the league. This year, they closed out the season without wide receivers Chris Godwin (torn ACL), Antonio Brown (released) and Brown’s replacement, Cyril Grayson (hamstring strain). They also were without their top two running backs in Leonard Fournette (hamstring strain) and Ronald Jones II (ankle sprain).
On defense, they were without outside linebackers Shaq Barrett (sprained ACL/MCL) and Jason Pierre-Paul (torn rotator cuff) and inside linebacker Lavonte David (foot sprain). They were able to get cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean back from the reserve/COVID-19 list and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. back from a foot injury to close out the season, marking two games (Weeks 17 and 18) that the Bucs have had every starter in their defensive backfield together, even though the group didn't complete a game intact.
Fournette, Barrett, Pierre-Paul and David all returned this week. Fournette looked fine moving around during the portions of practice open to the media. Barrett was wearing a bulky brace on his right knee, raising questions about how effective he’ll be moving with it.
Coach Bruce Arians said David will be the “closest call” in terms of readiness for Sunday, and on Friday, Grayson and Jones were ruled out.
Barrett had an NFL-leading four sacks last postseason while Pierre-Paul had two. Barrett’s 22.2% pass rush win rate was third-highest of any player last postseason while Pierre-Paul finished at 16.1%. David’s 26 tackles were second-most of any player last postseason, behind teammate Devin White. David’s absence is a key reason the Bucs have struggled with missed tackles and have given up uncharacteristic chunk plays on the ground and struggled with defending run-pass option plays.
“Just his calming influence as a leader out there,” Arians said of David, adding that with Barrett and Pierre-Paul, “They don’t panic.” He believes that “will help the run defense tremendously."
Life without Godwin and Brown
Aside from wide receiver Mike Evans – whom Eagles cornerback Darius Slay held to two catches for 27 yards in the Week 6 matchup that the Bucs won 28-22 in Philadelphia -- and tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady will have to rely on Breshad Perriman, Tyler Johnson, Scotty Miller, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard to step up without Godwin and Brown.
“You think there’s a lot of Chris and ABs out there? There’s not a lot of them out there on the planet,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “You don’t ask [the replacements] to be them -- you ask them to be themselves.”
He added, “Even though we’ve lost some great guys -- some special, unique guys -- the production from the group hasn’t really stopped.”
The Bucs still managed to put up 41 points last week without Godwin and Brown, but it was against a banged-up 5-12 Panthers team.
After missing six games because of cracked ribs and a punctured lung, Gronkowski has gotten healthy at the right time -- his 618 receiving yards since Week 11 were second only to Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews for most in the league at the position.
Gronkowski has had 252 receiving yards over the last two weeks. Brate had a productive postseason last year, catching 14 passes for 175 receiving yards, with an 8-yard touchdown in the NFC Championship Game.
Brady and the Bucs would be well-served to target the Eagles' safeties. Pro Football Focus ranks Eagles safeties Rodney McLeod 48th and Anthony Harris 54th in the league. The Eagles have given up 14 touchdowns and a 77% completion rate to tight ends this year, ranking worst in the NFL in both categories.
Eagles a 'completely different' team
When the Bucs faced Philadelphia in Week 6, coach Nick Sirianni hadn’t committed to running the ball the way he has now, making the Eagles the league’s top-ranked rushing attack.
“We’re a completely different team from that game,” Sirianni said. “I think the change is evident based off of who we are now. We play offense a completely different style, which I know is rare in this league where you change completely who you are, but that’s exactly what we did.”
Running back Miles Sanders’ lateral quickness is problematic for a Bucs defense that has had issues setting the edge as of late. The Eagles are averaging 6 yards per carry on perimeter runs while the Bucs are giving up 4.6 yards per carry in that department.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts has also developed more as a pocket passer after suffering an ankle injury that limited his mobility.
“You just continue to see Jalen get a little bit better each day because it means so much to him,” Sirianni said. “We’ve always known with Jalen that he is very dangerous with his feet and the things that he can do to extend plays and create plays. But what you’ve seen the last three weeks … when he’s been a pocket passer, he’s had over a 100 quarterback rating in all three games and we won all three games. That’s huge for his development.”
“He’s got great pocket presence,” Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “He can run like a halfback, but he can throw the ball very well. … You can see the maturity, you can see the control of the offense, and I think he’s done a hell of a job.”
If the Bucs beat the Eagles, the only teams Tampa Bay would be guaranteed not to face in the next round are the top-seeded Packers and No. 6 seed 49ers. The Bucs would end up hosting the highest remaining seed, and the Packers the lowest.
The Bucs defeated the No. 3 Dallas Cowboys (who play the 49ers) in Week 1 and lost to the No. 4 Rams (who play the No. 5 Arizona Cardinals) in Week 3. Brady and the Bucs are 0-2 against coach Sean McVay and the Rams going back to last year.
The Rams could present the biggest problem of the divisional-round opponents because they don’t rely on a run game to fuel their offense. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp has been virtually unstoppable.
The Rams were 7-2 on the road this season, but their secondary is banged up. Safety Jordan Fuller is out for the playoffs and safety Taylor Rapp is in the concussion protocol -- which is why they summoned safety Eric Weddle out of retirement this week.
The Cowboys have, at times, played like the league’s best team, but they have also been inconsistent. Quarterback Dak Prescott had eight games in which he threw for two touchdowns or fewer. Unlike the Rams, they rely more on the ground game, and Ezekiel Elliott has been banged up.
The Cowboys didn’t even really try to run the ball against Tampa Bay's No. 3-ranked rushing defense in Week 1, though the Bucs are looking more vulnerable in that department now.
The Cardinals started out the year 7-0 but went 4-6 down the stretch. Cooling off late has been a bit of an issue for coach Kliff Kingsbury’s past teams in college and the NFL.
Kingsbury's game and clock management have also been called into question, particularly some of his decisions in the Cardinals’ loss to the Rams in Week 14. Still, Kyler Murray is one of the NFL's most dangerous quarterbacks with his legs, and the Bucs have had issues with mobile QBs this season. They surrendered 109 rushing yards to the Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen in Week 14.