One season ends and a new one begins. For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that new season is a four game stretch where they seek to defend their title from last year and become the first back-to-back champions since the Tom Brady led New England Patriots won in the 2003 and 2004 seasons. There’s a reason it doesn’t happen often and it starts with how difficult the climb is to win one, let alone two.
The Buccaneers have faced a large amount of adversity, something they didn’t have to deal with on this scale in 2020. Injuries to prominent players like Rob Gronkowski, Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Lavonte David, Leonard Fournette, Antoine Winfield Jr., Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, and Richard Sherman. Then there was the suspension to safety Mike Edwards. And we can’t forget the trifecta - injury, suspension, and striptease walk-out by Antonio Brown.
All of that is now out the window. The players that can come back will come back, the players that can’t, won’t. That doesn’t mean they won’t be ready for their first of four potential opponents when the Philadelphia Eagles come to town this weekend.
The Bucs and Eagles have a rather storied history of postseason games against one another, none more famous than the 2002 NFC Championship where Ronde Barber returned a fourth quarter interceptions of Eagles’ quarterback Donovan McNabb to the house for a game sealing touchdown. Joe Jurevicius, whose son was born with complications earlier that week, was a hero in that game with clutch receptions and famous “you go, Joe!” catch and run early on.
However, none of that has any impact on this weekend’s game. Instead, this is between a still battered and bruised Bucs team against an Eagles team that has come together to play some very good football over the last few months. Neither team is what they were during week six and the game won’t be something that plays out in the same way. The Bucs, even though they finished with the third best rushing defense in the league, have been susceptible to the run over the last month. Now, some of that has to do with some injuries suffered but they aren’t great against quarterbacks that can scramble and make plays with their legs.
In the first meeting, Jalen Hurts rushed for just 44 yards but did have two rushing touchdowns. Against quarterbacks like Josh Allen, Taylor Heinicke, Cam Newton, and Taysom Hill the Bucs defense gave up an average of 50 rush yards per game against those quarterbacks. Josh Allen’s legs single-handedly sparked the Bills’ second half comeback against the Bucs on their way to overtime. Jalen Hurts was second in the NFL with 733 rushing yards by a quarterback this season, behind Lamar Jackson (767). Not only that, but the Eagles have the number one rushing offense in the league, averaging 159.7 yards per game.
Now, the Bucs allow just 92.5 rush yards per game, so the key is shutting down Hurts along with Mile Sanders, Boston Scott, Jordan Howard, and Kenneth Gainwell. If they are able to minimize the Eagles’ rushing attack it will play right into the Bucs’ hands. Forcing Hurts to try and beat them with his arm will likely end in the Bucs’ win. Hurts finished with 3,144 passing yards this season with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions with a completion percentage of 61.3%. In games where Hurts had over 30 pass attempts, the Eagles were 2-4. Hurts had nine passing touchdowns, six interceptions in those same games and those six games account for eleven of the 26 sacks Hurts suffered through the season. That means 42% of his sacks came in six games where he was forced to drop back and pass over thirty times.
An early lead for the Bucs is a key to victory.
Philadelphia is 31st in the NFL in points allowed in the first quarter of a game with 5.9. The only team that allowed more were the Jacksonville Jaguars with 7.0. Tampa Bay, who struggled with slow starts down the stretch, were third in the NFL in first quarter scoring with 6.3 points per game in the first - including 4.7 points in the last three games. At home, they are averaging 7.0 points per first quarter. Taking advantage of that mismatch can catapult the Bucs to an early lead, forcing Hurts to throw the ball earlier and more often than Philadelphia would care to see.
A big part of that early lead will come courtesy of the fresh legs of Playoff Lenny. Leonard Fournette’s return can help the Bucs rely less on guys like Tyler Johnson and Breshad Perriman and do more to control the pace of the game. In their first meeting, Fournette finished with 81 rushing yards and two touchdowns along with 46 receiving yards on six receptions. Even though the Bucs averaged just 98.4 rush yards per game, the Eagles are giving up 107.9 per game. With Fournette coming back and the recent emergence of Ke’Shawn Vaughn, the Bucs not only get the return of their top back but they still have the threat of any running back they line up with being a pass catching threat out of the backfield.
Fournette finished the year with 69 receptions on 84 targets for 454 yards and two touchdowns. In a game where the weather will absolutely play a factor - forecast calls for heavy winds (20-30 mph) and a quarter inch of rain - so having Playoff Lenny back will pay huge dividends for Tampa as Fournette has scored at least one touchdown in six consecutive playoff games. Who knows - if Fournette has a big game in a storm we might be calling him Big Storm Lenny for a week.
This will be the fifth postseason meeting between the Bucs and Eagles with a 2-2 overall record. The Bucs won in 1979 and 2002 while the Eagles won in 2000 and 2001. The home team is 3-1 in the four meetings with the Bucs being the lone team to win on the road. The only game Tampa hosted between the two was the game in 1979.
For this one, the Bucs are coming in as 8.5 point favorites with an over/under of 46 according to DraftKings Sportsbook. The underdog has covered the spread in each of the Eagles last eight playoff games. And for you prop bettors, the Bucs have won the second quarter in 12 of their last 13 home games.
The Bucs finished 7-1 at home, averaging 33.25 points per game at home while the Eagles were 6-3 on the road, averaging 25.55 points. However, of their six road wins, none came against teams with a record over .500.
The Buccaneers and Eagles will kickoff on Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET inside Raymond James Stadium. The game will be broadcast on FOX with Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, and Erin Andrews on the call.