To say that the Buccaneers have had a rough few weeks would be an understatement. In a 9-0 loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Bucs lost wide receiver Chris Godwin for the rest of the season, lost wide receiver Mike Evans and running back Leonard Fournette to hamstring injuries, and lost linebacker Lavonte David to a foot injury. Then, in a 32-6 win over the Carolina Panthers, the Bucs lost outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett to an MCL sprain.
Follow that up with Mike Evans as well as cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting, and head coach Bruce Arians all testing positive for Covid and you have yourself a makeshift group of players finishing out the regular season as well as an interim head coach ahead of a road game that is still a must win. No, the Bucs don’t have to beat the New York Jets in order to get in the playoffs or win the division - that is already accomplished. Instead, the Bucs have to win out and hope for a Rams loss along the way in order to tie up the number two seed. If you really want to get greedy, hope the Packers lose their last two games so the Bucs have home field advantage throughout as the top seed in the NFC.
The beleaguered New York Jets are next on the docket for the Bucs and in spite of all the injuries and the players missing due to Covid, the Jets are a team that Tampa Bay should beat.
The Jets, despite some upset wins over the likes of the Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals, are not a good football team that still have what appears to be no answer at quarterback and a defense that gives up points the way people give up candy on Halloween.
The Jets are allowing a league high 29.9 points per game and 250 passing yards per game, which is good for 28th in the NFL. The Bucs’ offense is averaging 29.5 points per game, dropping to second in the NFL thanks to the goose-egg put up against the Saints and the 50-burger the Dallas Cowboys put up against the Washington Football Team. Tampa Bay still has the number one passing offense, averaging 300 yards per game and have now cracked the 100 yard mark rushing the ball, averaging 101.7 per game. Although, that average is thanks in large part to Leonard Fournette, who won’t be on the field.
Last week, to supplement the losses of Fournette and Gio Bernard, the Buccaneers signed Le’Veon Bell who saw limited snaps at the end of the win over Carolina as the Bucs sent out the backups. This week, he may become more involved not only because he’ll have a better understanding of the offense, but because he’s facing his former team and fellow running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn didn’t do quite enough to be the go-to pass catching option out of the backfield.
Another person looking at facing his former team is defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Bowles was fired from the head coaching job in New York prior to joining Arians and his staff in Tampa. Without Barrett and David, and possibly without Jason Pierre-Paul again, Bowles won’t shy away from dialing up plenty of blitzes and generating pressure on rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. The Jets have allowed 43 sacks this season, tied for sixth most in the league. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers have been on an absolute tear getting 44 sacks on the season while getting 17 sacks over the last four weeks.
The Jets, 4-11, have won two of their last five games with wins coming against the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars. Wilson, the Jets’ first round pick and number two overall, has just seven touchdown passes this season compared to eleven interceptions. While the Bucs’ secondary has been beaten and battered beyond recognition this season, there is optimism that safety Antoine Winfield Jr. will return this week giving the Bucs their safety trio they’ve like utilizing this season in the absence of some of their corners. In addition, the potential losses of Dean and Murphy-Bunting will open the door for Richard Sherman to see the field more and we know that he has a nose for the football. Against a rookie quarterback that has struggled throughout the season, that could be the ingredients for a big day out of the corner.
Tom Brady, of course, has a long history against the Jets having spent two decades in a division with them. Overall, Brady is 29-7 when facing the Jets with 8,649 yards, 57 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions against them. Those 57 touchdowns are the second most he has against any single opponent - with 72 touchdowns against both the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins sitting at the most.
However, without Godwin and Evans on the field, the Buccaneers are still trying to find their footing offensively. Antonio Brown returned last week and finished with ten receptions for 101 yards. Gronk, on the other hand, has been missing the last two weeks. It’s not that Gronk isn’t getting targets. Instead, the Saints and Panthers schemed to remove him as an option with bracket coverage and occasional triple teams. So in addition to Cam Brate and O.J. Howard, Brady has looked to Tyler Johnson and Cyril Grayson as targets but this week he will get back receiver Breshad Perriman who was activated off the reserve/Covid list. Slowly getting his weapons back ahead of the playoff push will certainly help the offense get back on track a little quicker and by time the first playoff game rolls around, Brady should be able to use Evans and Fournette once again - opening things back up for Gronk to make some noise.
The problem the Bucs currently face with Fournette out is the lack of threat either of their running backs pose as a pass catching option. Fournette was becoming one of the better pass catching backs in the league and defenses had to respect that. Now, they’re forcing Ronald Jones and Vaughn to prove they’re worthy of that level of respect and neither one has done so - yet.
The Buccaneers won the last meeting with the Jets 15-10 back in 2017, but had lost the previous eight meetings before that. Overall, the Jets hold a 10-2 advantage with the two Buccaneers wins coming in 2017 and 1984.
Even with all the missing pieces, the Buccaneers are sitting as 12.5 point road favorites with a 45.5 point over/under according to DraftKings Sportsbook. The Jets have lost 34 of their last 36 games when they are underdogs by seven or more points and in seven consecutive games for the Jets, the road team has covered the spread.
The Buccaneers and Jets will kickoff at MetLife Stadium at 1:00 p.m. ET with the game being broadcast on FOX. Play-by-play will be handled by Chris Myers with Greg Jennings covering the analyst role. Jennifer Hale will provide sideline coverage for the game.