Tom Brady and the Bucs head north for a Saturday night Wild Card showdown against upset-minded Washington
It only took 13 years and the addition of arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to make their way back into the postseason. The Bucs were unable to win a division title, which had become customary for Tom Brady-led teams over the years. But they were able to cruise into the playoffs as a No. 5 seed with an impressive 11-5 record, finishing runner-up to New Orleans in the NFC South. Bruce Arians' squad also enters the postseason riding the momentum of a four-game winning streak after knocking off the Falcons 44-27 last Sunday.
Washington punched its ticket into the postseason last Sunday night with a 20-14 win over the Eagles on the road to finish the regular season with a record of 7-9. Sadly, that was good enough for Washington to capture its first NFC East title since 2015, which also happens to be the last time the team made an appearance in the playoffs. Washington may or may not have been gifted the division title when Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson elected to pull starting quarterback Jalen Hurts in the fourth quarter of what was still a very winnable game. Nevertheless, Washington now has the privilege of hosting Saturday night's playoff game as the No. 4 seed under first-year head coach Ron Rivera. An impressive feat for a team that won all of three games last season and had to overcome so much adversity this season to bounce back from a 2-7 start. Can Washington prove the critics wrong once again by playing the role of spoiler against Brady and the Bucs?
Saturday night's game will mark the 24th meeting all-time between Washington and Tampa Bay. Washington won the most recent meeting in 2018 by a score of 16-3 to take a narrow 12-11 lead in the all-time series. The two teams have met just twice in the postseason (2000 and 2006), splitting those contests.
NFC Wild Card: Tampa Bay at Washington
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 9 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Buccaneers -8.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Calling out the G.O.A.T
It’s not uncommon in the NFL for players to call out peers. But when a rookie calls out arguably the greatest quarterback of all time and unquestionably the greatest postseason quarterback in NFL history heading into a playoff game, it's going to raise plenty of eyebrows. And that is exactly what happened when rookie defensive end Chase Young called out "Tom Brady, Tom Brady, I'm coming! I want Tom!" as he exited the field following Washington's division-clinching win over Philadelphia last Sunday night.
It was a bold move indeed. And while Brady seems to be brushing it off, Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians was quick to offer the rookie edge rusher some sage advice — "you better watch what you wish for." It would be one thing for Young to make that statement if the 43-year-old Brady was struggling heading into the postseason, but that is not the case. In fact, Brady is coming off one of his best seasons in years — completing 66 percent of his pass attempts for 4,633 yards with 40 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions. Over his last three games alone, the red-hot Brady has completed 70 percent of his passes for 1,137 yards with 10 touchdowns and just one interception. He has one of the best supporting casts in the NFL at his disposal, including three of the top wide receivers in the league in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown to go along with future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski. Brady also has one of the best pass-blocking offensive lines in the league. A group that allowed just 22 sacks during the regular season (fourth-fewest in the NFL).
That being said, Young isn't your typical rookie. He is the front-runner for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year following a standout regular season that included 7.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for a loss, and a team-best four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. And he does have the potential to be a real hindrance to Brady on Saturday night. However, Young won't be able to do it alone, which begs the question — does the Washington defense have what it takes to combat Brady and the Buccaneers' high-octane passing attack?
The answer is yes, this is a defense that is capable of giving Brady and Co. problems. Washington boasts the second-best pass defense in the NFL, allowing just 191.8 yards per game through the air. Washington also tied for the second-most interceptions (16) during the regular season, limited opposing quarterbacks to an 81.4 passer rating, and allowed the fewest pass plays of 20 yards or more.
Young will have plenty of help in the crucial pass rush department as well. A formidable Washington defensive front that features five former first-round draft picks played a key role in generating 47 sacks during the regular season (sixth in the NFL), led by second-year defensive end Montez Sweat with nine. That bodes well against Brady, who has shown a tendency to struggle on the rare occasion that an opposing defense has been able to apply consistent pressure. However, the key words here are "rare occasion" and actually getting to Brady is much easier said than done. At any rate, it will make for a very intriguing strength vs. strength matchup. The battle in the trenches will be of particular interest, where all eyes will be on Young.
2. The Washington passing game vs. the Tampa Bay pass defense
The fact that Alex Smith is once again playing football is a remarkable feat in and of itself. The fact that he is 5-1 as the starting quarterback for the Washington Football Team just two years after suffering one of the most gruesome leg injuries in NFL history is even more impressive. And no one is more deserving of NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors than Smith. However, his numbers on the stat sheet have left plenty to be desired this season. In eight games, he's thrown just six touchdown passes against eight interceptions en route to a dismal passer rating of 78.5. Smith is currently nursing a calf injury that could limit him on Saturday night as well. Head coach Ron Rivera has hinted at the possibility of rotating Smith and backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke against the Buccaneers. And according to reports (as of Wednesday), Heinicke has been getting all the first-team reps in practice. Leading receiver Terry McClaurin also is a little worse for the wear with an ankle injury, but he is expected to play.
It isn't all doom and gloom for the Washington passing game on Saturday night. There is still some room for optimism against a Tampa Bay pass defense that ranks just 21st in the league, giving up 247 yards per game. The Bucs also have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 69 percent of their pass attempts against them (fourth-highest in the NFL).
Unfortunately, that is about as promising as it gets for the Washington passing attack. And a lackluster Washington offensive line that has struggled in pass protection, surrendering 50 sacks (second-most in the NFL) during the regular season, will still have to contend with a stout Tampa Bay pass rush that racked up 48 sacks during the regular season (fourth). The only silver lining for Washington here is that the Buccaneers will be without star linebacker Devin White (on the reserve/COVID-19 list), who leads Tampa Bay in tackles and ranks second on the team with nine sacks. But the Bucs still have plenty of firepower on tap with Jason Pierre-Paul (team-leading 9.5 sacks), Shaquil Barrett (8), and Ndamukong Suh (6). And the blitz-happy Bucs aren't going to pull any punches in their bid to get to the wounded Smith and/or Heinicke on Saturday night.
3. The run game
Running the football is rarely a top priority in an Arians-coached offense. And when you have Brady and some of the best pass catchers in the league, it makes even less sense to lean heavily on the run game. But if Washington's pass defense lives up to its billing on Saturday night, it might serve the Bucs well to keep it on the ground a little more than usual. The Washington defense isn't terrible against the run, allowing 113 rushing yards per contest (14th in the NFL). But it is Washington's biggest liability on that side of the football, and Tampa Bay has a solid running back in Ronald Jones II, who complied close to 1,000 rushing yards in 14 games with an impressive 5.1 yards per carry average. Jones could be the X-factor for the Tampa Bay offense in this matchup.
Washington also has a solid option in its backfield with running back Antonio Gibson (795 yards, 11 TDs in 14 games). However, Gibson hasn't rushed for more than 75 yards or scored a touchdown in his last three games as he's been dealing with a turf toe injury that has caused him to miss some time and may still be limiting him. And to make matters worse, he will be paired against a stingy Tampa Bay run defense that sits atop the NFL rankings in that department, allowing just 80.6 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry. Tampa Bay also has allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns this season. It will be a very tall order for Washington to find success on the ground against the Buccaneers.
At first glance, a 7-9 Washington team that hails from the worst division in the NFL looks like easy prey for the Buccaneers. But despite Tampa Bay's glowing 11-5 record, the Bucs were just 1-5 against teams that ultimately made the playoffs. And all five of those losses came against teams with legit defenses that were able to get pressure on Tom Brady. Washington's defense is very legit and capable of doing much the same. However, it's probably safe to assume that Washington isn't going to completely shut down Brady and Co. on Saturday night. It's also safe to assume that a struggling Washington offense isn't going to do much damage against a solid Tampa Bay defense that matches up quite well, especially with Alex Smith at less than 100 percent. Washington's defense will keep the home team in the fight, but Ron Rivera's squad simply doesn't have enough offensive firepower. Tampa Bay wins a hard-fought defensive battle to move on to the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Prediction: Buccaneers 24, Washington 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.