Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers keep marching on in the playoffs. The Buccaneers didn’t look all that impressive in their 30-20 victory against the Saints on Sunday. Here’s the NFL Recap preview of the Buccaneers as they prepare to face the Packers in the Conference Championship on Sunday, January 24th at 3:05 PM.
Editor’s note — bookmark the main page on Pro Football Network for all of Mike’s thoughts in the full NFL Recap beyond this Conference Championship preview!
They really don’t appear to be a match for the Green Bay Packers right now. Yet, the Buccaneers slaughtered the Packers 38-10 in Week 6, and underestimating Brady in the playoffs has been a bad idea for a generation. Each week, Tampa Bay’s opponents get a little tougher, their wins get a little tighter (despite what the final score might say), and Brady leans a little harder on his defense, offensive line, receivers, or even Leonard Fournette. And each week, they rise to the occasion.
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Conference Championship Preview, NFC: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
How the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got here
Brady and the Buccaneers could barely move the football in the first half. However, Drew Brees visibly aged as the game wore on. A second-quarter interception by Sean Murphy-Bunting set up a three-yard Buccaneers touchdown drive, while two fourth-quarter interceptions by Devin White and Mike Edwards crushed any hope of a Saints rally. Brady was just 18 of 33 for 199 yards and 2 touchdowns while executing a game plan built around running the football and slowing the Saints pass rush.
Quarterback Tom Brady
Brady’s 2020 season is really a logical extension of his 2018 and 2019 seasons. His statistics look better than they did in 2018 and 2019 because his Buccaneers weapons are much better than his New England Patriots receivers in recent years. Yet, he still possesses the same strengths (exquisite coverage recognition, touch, and timing) and weaknesses (occasional wobblers, unwillingness to take a hit).
Brady led the Patriots to a Super Bowl in 2018 but hit the wall against a superior opponent in the 2019-2020 Playoffs. Both possibilities are on the table next week.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ weapons
Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Brown combined for 7 catches for 61 yards and 2 touchdowns so the Buccaneers could emphasize Fournette and Cameron Brate (a combined 9-94-1) in a playoff game. Go figure. Should we expect more of the unexpected in this Conference Championship preview?
Evans remains a “Quarterback’s Best Friend,” despite the occasional drop. Few receivers are better at hauling in contested catches, staying in bounds while tiptoeing the sideline, or retrieving slightly off-target passes.
Godwin has dropped a few too many passes this season — and he couldn’t quite stay in bounds in the back of the end zone on a near-touchdown just before halftime against the Saints — but he remains one of the NFL’s best #2 receivers.
Brown has shown flashes of being the old Antonio Brown, while we have not heard a peep from the horrible Antonio Brown lately. Gronk smash. Scottie Miller and Justin Watson take turns being Brady’s “Fake Edelman.” Fifth-round pick Tyler Johnson came off the bench for a clutch sideline catch in the second half on Sunday. The Buccaneers’ depth at wide receiver is almost unfair.
The rise of Leonard Fournette
And yet … Fournette. The bruising Buccaneers running back has played well through two playoff games, though the cool kids of the NFL internet refuse to accept that Fournette can do anything right. (Seriously: when Fournette catches a touchdown pass, Twitter says, “LOL Fournette almost dropped a touchdown pass).
That said, head coach Bruce Arians’ Fournette-heavy game plans have been peculiar. A team with 399 starting-caliber wide receivers and tight ends should not hand off on first down constantly as the Buccaneers do. Arians clearly wants to prevent opponents from rushing Brady on early downs. And maybe that’s the wise choice, at least to a degree. When Brady does drop to throw on first down, he usually has time and often has an open receiver.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive line
Tampa Bay’s offensive line has been incredibly healthy all season. Left tackle Donovan Smith, rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs, guard Alex Cappa, and center Ryan Jensen each played all 16 regular season games. Cappa was placed on injured reserve last week, but Ali Marpet is back, so left guard Aaron Stinnie is the only semi-weak link on the offensive line.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles blitzed on 39.0% of all passing plays during the regular season, the 5th-highest rate in the NFL. Bowles blitzes because his defensive front is flooded with talent — Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Lavonte David, Ndamukong Suh, and Devin White, to name a few — but his secondary is inexperienced and relatively thin. If the Buccaneers don’t apply pressure, they are vulnerable to big plays.
The Buccaneers also allowed just 3.6 yards per rush and have the best run defense in the NFL, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. This is a defense that is great at forcing opponents into 3rd-and-long, then knocking the quarterback on his butt.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ special teams
A relative weakness — kicker Ryan Succop is fine, but Tampa Bay’s return game is nothing special. The Buccaneers allowed a punt return touchdown and some long kickoff returns during the regular season, and a penalty negated a would-be Saints punt return touchdown on Sunday.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can beat the Packers if …
They find a way to cover Davante Adams, keep Aaron Rodgers from freelancing many big plays, and force coverage mismatches between the Packers linebackers and pretty much any of their receivers, tight ends, and running backs.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will lose to the Packers if …
They play like they did through the first three quarters against the Saints on Sunday. Last week’s performance against Washington won’t do either.
The road keeps rising up to meet Tom Brady.
The late-season Tampa Bay Buccaneers schedule was a cakewalk. The Buccaneers faced one of the worst playoff teams in history with their fourth-string quarterback in the lineup in the Wild Card round. They beat a hollowed-out shell of Drew Brees with a depleted supporting cast on Sunday (even Taysom Hill’s most dedicated haters had to cringe at the Saints trying to feature Ty Montgomery in their offense).
The Buccaneers have been one of the NFL’s healthiest teams. Balls sometimes seem to bounce into defenders’ hands.
The Packers are a tougher test than the Buccaneers have faced in months. Yes, they thumped the Packers in Week 6. However, that was a game that started close but then snowballed in a way that’s unlikely to happen again.
The Buccaneers will need to play their best game of the season to beat the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Anything less, and Tampa Bay will look like the team we saw during their November slump — paper contenders who, despite all their big names, remain one notch below Super Bowl-caliber.
Conference Championship Preview, Early Prediction: Green Bay Packers defeat Tampa Bay Buccaneers.