The NFC playoffs get underway Sunday afternoon in central Florida when the 7th-seeded Philadelphia Eagles travel to Raymond James Stadium for a battle with the 2nd-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This Super Wild Card Weekend showdown is actually a rematch, as the Bucs fended off the Eagles 28-22 in October at Lincoln Financial Field. Will the favored Bucs take care of business handily, or do the scrappy Eagles put up another fight? Let’s break it down.
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- Opening line: Tampa Bay -7
- Current line: Tampa Bay -8.5
- Total: 46
Can the Eagles find success on the ground?
Philadelphia’s running game has propelled it into the playoffs. The Eagles finished the regular season ranked third in rush offense DVOA and fourth in yards per attempt.
But against Tampa Bay in Week 6, Philadelphia’s offense struggled mightily to sustain drives and get the ground game going. After an opening drive touchdown to tie the game, Philly went three-and-out on their next six drives. During that span, Tampa Bay extended its lead to 21-7, forcing the Eagles to go away from the run.
Philadelphia’s formula for pulling the upset is simple: establish the run early, win the time of possession battle and keep Brady stapled to the bench. Essentially, they need to flip the script from the first meeting, where Philadelphia ran only 47 plays and held the ball for just 20 minutes.
The good news for Philadelphia is there might be some misperceptions surrounding Tampa’s “vaunted,” run defense. The Buccaneers rank just 12th in rush defense DVOA and were middle of the pack in rushing yards per attempt allowed. Sure, Tampa gave up the third-fewest rushing yards in the league during the regular season. But it helped that they faced the fewest rushing attempts in the league because they were typically playing with a lead.
Philadelphia’s offensive line is also a strength, ranking fourth in adjusted line yards, first in stuff rate, and fourth in second-level yards. In other words, the Eagles O-line is strong at the point of attack and gives their slew of tailbacks plenty of holes to reach the second level of the defense.
However, running the ball against the Tampa front four won’t be easy. The Buccaneers rank fourth in adjusted line yards defensively and first in stuff rate.
In the first meeting, Philly ran for 100 yards on just 19 carries. The key to this game will be whether they can prevent Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, and Jason Pierre-Paul from busting up runs at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Starting quarterback Jalen Hurts is also a huge question in this game. While Hurts’ dual-threat capabilities always make him a threat, he struggled against Tampa in the first meeting. Hurts completed just 12 of 26 passes for 115 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. He rushed for two scores in the game but had just 44 yards on 10 carries, which was one of his lowest rushing outputs of the season. Hurts also isn’t consistent enough as a passer to expose a vulnerable Buccaneers secondary.
Beat up Bucs are on the mend
Tampa Bay’s offense hasn’t looked nearly as imposing since the infamous 9-0 loss to the New Orleans Saints, a game in which Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Leonard Fournette, and Lavonte David all left the game with injuries. While Godwin is out for the rest of the year with an ACL injury, Evans has since returned to the lineup. And more help could be on the way.
Fournette and David were both designated to return from injured reserve earlier this week, meaning they have 21 days to be activated off IR. Both could return as soon as Sunday afternoon, which would be a big boost on both sides of the ball.
Tampa Bay’s offense has been a wagon all year, ranking tops in the league in DVOA. But without Godwin and Antonio Brown, Brady’s weaponry is a little short-handed. Evans and Rob Gronkowski make up a tremendous duo. But for the Buccaneers to get back to the Super Bowl, they’ll need contributions from depth guys like Tyler Johnson, Scotty Miller, Breshad Perriman, and others. Someone has to step up when teams scheme to take Evans and Gronk out of the picture.
The good news for Brady and the Bucs is Philadelphia’s defense doesn’t pose much of a threat. Philly ranks 25th in overall defensive DVOA and 25th in pass defense DVOA. They have the second-fewest sacks in the league and only generated pressure on 24% of dropbacks during the regular season. Philly has also given up touchdowns on 66% of their red zone trips this season, which spells bad news against Brady. And to make matter worse, Philly only has 16 takeaways on the year.
Even without his full complement of weapons, Brady should have no issues staying protected and marching the ball down the field.
While the Eagles have made a nice run to the postseason, they just don’t match up well with Tampa Bay on either side of the ball. The way to beat Tampa Bay is through the air, but that’s not Philadelphia’s strength offensively. On the other side of the ball, I don’t see how the Eagles can get enough stops to keep this game within reach.
One more fun fact: Philadelphia is 0-6 against teams who made the playoffs this season, and 9-2 otherwise.
There will also be weather to consider in this matchup. Thunderstorms and wind gusts of up to 40 miles per hour are expected in Tampa Sunday afternoon. That could be really bad news for Hurts, who doesn’t have the liveliest arm in the league. The weather will only further increase Philadelphia’s emphasis on the ground game, particularly in the first half.
For all of these reasons, I’m taking Tampa Bay to cover the spread, as well as the first half under.
The pick: Tampa Bay -8.5, play to -9.5, first half under 23.5 points
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