Eagles Face Buccaneers as Huge Underdog in Wildcard Round
This Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles will travel down to sunny Florida to do battle with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild card round of the NFL’s postseason. These teams exist at nearly opposite ends of the spectrum as it relates to championship hopes. The Brady-led Buccaneers are the defending Super Bowl champions and will view anything less than a repeat performance of last year as a disappointment for the franchise. Meanwhile, the Birds squeaked into the playoffs with a 9-8 record, and four of those wins came in the last five weeks against the likes of measly competition such as the Jets, Giants, and Washington Football Team (twice).
No one expects the Eagles to emerge victorious and that sentiment is reflected in the current point spread from the books in Las Vegas. The Buccaneers opened as 7.5 point favorites and the line has already increased to 8.5 points. While the Eagles only lost by six points when these teams met in week 6 of the regular season, that result is deceptive without context. Brady and the Buccaneers offense had no trouble meticulously picking apart the Eagle’s defense. Midway through the third quarter the Buccaneers simply took their foot off the gas and this is when the Birds mounted their comeback. The result may look like only a one-score game (28-22), but Brady ended the contest by kneeling on consecutive plays while in the red zone, much to the chagrin of bettors who already felt screwed by coach Sirianni’s decision to go for two earlier.
The outcome of the Eagles week 6 matchup with the Buccaneers was anything but encouraging. However, the current version of the Birds, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, is vastly different from who they were in that early stage of the season. A strong rushing attack was not the identity of the team back then, and it’s the entire game plan for this squad who excelled on the ground across the latter half of the year. A heavy dosage of effective runs will be the key for the Eagles to have any shot in this matchup. Miles Sanders was limited during Wednesday’s walkthrough practice and it remains uncertain whether he will be able to make it to the field healthy. If that’s the case, then the combination of Boston Scott and Jordan Howard, mixed with the occasional designed run for Jalen Hurts, will have to do their best to get the job done.
Running the ball against the Buccaneers is certainly a tall task, but it isn’t the daunting impossibility that it was last year. Superb run-stuffer Vita Vea will be clogging up the middle of the field, but the Birds may be able to find success on the outside or with a strategy to “run through the air” with short bubble screens to Devonte Smith and company. An execution of a hurry-up offense from Jalen Hurts will also help. Not so much with the intent of speeding up the game, but rather to keep Buccaneers’ defenders of a certain package remaining on the field and tired. Should the Eagle’s establish the run, this will also extend drives and chew up clock, keeping Brady and the Buccaneers potentially explosive offense off the field.
I say “potentially explosive” because the Buccaneers offense is without many of the formidable weapons that made them so potent across the last two years. Wide receiver Chris Godwin underwent knee surgery earlier this week and is shut down for the season. Mike Evans is dealing with a hamstring injury and it’s very unlikely that he sees the field. Leonard Fournette did return from the IR on Wednesday and it’s increasingly probable that he returns in time for Sunday’s matchup. His availability would be a huge asset for Brady. Of course the GOAT can still get it done with the likes of Scottie Miller, Tyler Johnson and old reliable Rob Gronkowski, but the check-down ability that Fournette provides would be a welcome safety valve for the offense as the Birds will be hyper-focused on preventing deep plays.
Since the Buccaneers are missing so many weapons, there is a chance for the Eagles to pull off an upset. But it would take some serious magic given that this is Jalen Hurts very first playoff game and the Eagles haven’t beaten a playoff team even once this season. I’m all for fans talking themselves into optimism but I think somewhere between 10 and 15 things would have to break just right for Brady to be knocked off in the first round by this Eagles team. The good news? The Eagles have not one, not two, but three picks in the top 20 of the upcoming NFL draft.