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NFC Wild Card Prediction and Preview: Philadelphia Eagles vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFC Wild Card Prediction and Preview: Philadelphia Eagles vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Eagles look to avenge Week 6 loss to Buccaneers in teams' first playoff matchup since 2003

The Philadelphia Eagles started the regular season 3-6, including a 28-22 home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 14. But after posting a 6-2 record in the final eight weeks en route to securing the No. 7 seed in the NFC playoffs, the Eagles are set for a rematch as they head to Raymond James Stadium to take on the NFC South champion Buccaneers on Sunday afternoon.

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The hope for Philadelphia will stem in part from the team's success on the road in 2021, as the Eagles won just three of eight games at Lincoln Financial Field but went 6-3 on the road this season. Those strong showings will be tough to replicate, however, because Tampa Bay's 13-4 record was boosted by its 7-1 mark at home in 2021 — with the lone loss a 9-0 Week 15 shutout against New Orleans.

These two teams have split the 20 previous meetings perfectly evenly. Interestingly, this series has been dominated by streaks: after the Eagles won three of the first four meetings — wins in 1977, 1981, and 1988; loss in 1981 — the Buccaneers responded with three straight wins, followed by four consecutive Eagles wins. But beginning with the last time these teams met in the playoffs (NFC Championship Game — Jan. 19, 2003), Tampa Bay rebounded with three consecutive wins, followed by three straight Philadelphia victories before the Buccaneers secured wins in each of the last three matchups — including the Week 6 win earlier this season.

NFC Wild Card: Philadelphia (9-8) at Tampa Bay (13-4)

Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 16, at 1 p.m. ET
TV:
FOX
Spread:
Buccaneers -8.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Can Hurts break through against Bucs' stingy defense?
While well outside the league leaders in passing, Jalen Hurts leads NFL quarterbacks in 2021 with 139 rushes for 784 yards and 10 touchdowns. His yardage is actually a top-25 mark across all ball-carriers — not just quarterbacks — this season, and only five running backs have tallied more than his 10 rushing scores. Hurts rushed for at least 40 yards in all but three of his games played, while his 10 rushing touchdowns came in just five games: one in Week 2 against San Francisco, three in Week 11 against New Orleans, and two each against Carolina (Week 5), Washington (Week 15) … and Tampa Bay in Week 6, when he also threw for a touchdown to account for all three scores in the Eagles' 28-22 loss.

But the Buccaneers have more than held their own on the defensive side of the ball, entering the postseason third in the NFL with 92.5 yards rushing allowed per game and fifth in scoring defense (20.8 points allowed per game). That was helped quite substantially by their total of 100 points allowed across six games in December and January, five of which were wins.

That defense took a hit this week, however, when cornerback Richard Sherman was placed on injured reserve with an Achilles injury from Week 16. This is his second stint on IR, coming after a hamstring injury suffered on just the seventh play of the game in Week 6 against these Eagles, after which he missed six weeks of game action. With linebacker Shaq Barrett rejoining the team after suffering a sprained ACL and MCL in Week 15, look for defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to utilize Barrett in a variety of packages alongside fellow linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David. The latter has been on injured reserve since late December but he was designated for return earlier this week and could be activated in time to play on Sunday.

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2. Can Brady's top targets continue potent productivity?
Sherman isn't the only major Buccaneer (current or former) whose season recently came to an end. Antonio Brown's 2021 campaign was characterized by issues both on and off the field, including an ankle injury, vaccination scandal, and his in-game exit in Week 17.

But with Brown no longer suiting up and Chris Godwin out after tearing his ACL, attention turns to Tampa Bay's top pass catchers: Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski. Both finished the regular season among the top 25 in the NFL in yards per game, while Evans (14) trails only MVP candidate Cooper Kupp (16) for the league lead in touchdowns.

That duo has combined for more than 42 percent of Tom Brady's passing yardage in the last three games after Godwin was injured in Week 15, while Cyril Grayson grabbed nine receptions for 161 yards and a touchdown before an injury in Week 18 that leaves him unlikely to play on Sunday. There has been an array of playmakers for Brady to target in recent weeks — the Bucs even added veteran John Brown — and Philadelphia's middle-of-the-pack defense will need to rise to the occasion in order to give the Eagles a chance to advance in the playoffs.

3. Whose late-season momentum shines forth in the playoffs?
Despite struggles at various points of the regular season, both of these teams head into the postseason riding high waves of momentum. Tampa Bay won its first two games, including a win in the league opener against eventual NFC East champion Dallas, en route to wins in six of its first seven. But the Buccaneers bookended their Week 9 bye with road losses at New Orleans and Washington, a minor blip from which they recovered via a 7-1 record since mid-November to close the regular season.

The Eagles, meanwhile, started the 2021 campaign with just one win in their first four games — a win in the season opener followed by three straight losses — but turned it around in the back half of the season to go 6-2 in their final eight games. Their final game of the regular season, though, was a disappointing 51-26 loss to Dallas last Saturday night.

The Eagles endured that three-game losing streak early in the season as well as a two-loss stretch in October — which included the Week 6 loss to the Buccaneers — but rebounded from each of their two November losses with wins in the following week. The Eagles will look to keep that energy and rebound from the regular-season finale in hopes of notching another road win against the NFC South, as Philadelphia lost to Tampa Bay and New Orleans at home while beating Atlanta and Carolina on the road.

Final Analysis

Two of the last four Super Bowl champions are set to square off when Philadelphia heads to Tampa for the first round of the NFC playoffs. Three consecutive wins to close the regular season provide a nice wave of momentum for the Buccaneers, while the Eagles will aim to build on their 6-3 record away from Lincoln Financial Field in their first road playoff game in three seasons and just their third in the last 12 seasons. Tampa may not be whole, but they are still the champs until someone beats them, and I don't think it will be the Eagles.

Prediction: Buccaneers 31, Eagles 21

— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.