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Baltimore vs. Tampa Bay: Reeling Buccaneers Host the Mercurial Ravens for TNF

Will Tom Brady's freefall continue against another former NFL MVP, Lamar Jackson?

The Baltimore Ravens and Tampa Bay Buccaneers come into their "Thursday Night Football" matchup leading their respective divisions. Both center their offense around former MVP quarterbacks and were projected to be among the NFL's elite teams.

So why do both teams feel like they're running on seven cylinders?

The Ravens (4-3) have yet to win back-to-back games all season. They've blown double-digit leads in each of their three losses and nearly did so again against the Browns, needing an offensive pass interference call, a false start, then a key field goal block to secure a 23-20 victory at home.

At least Baltimore was able to put up points. The Bucs, with Tom Brady under center, have scored 23 points or more just once this season, a 41-31 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 4. In the last nine quarters of play, they've produced just one offensive touchdown, leaving Brady with the worst record (3-4) he's had through seven games at any point in his NFL career.

Related: NFL Power Rankings Entering Week 8

Something has to give between these two franchises whose talented rosters still offer so much hope. Only one of the six other teams in their divisions (Bengals, AFC North) is over .500; both franchises are still in control of their playoff destiny.

Who will start digging out of their hole first?

Thursday Night Football: Baltimore (4-3) at Tampa Bay (3-4)

Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 27 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Broadcast Outlet: Amazon Prime Video
Live Stream: fuboTV (only available in Baltimore and Tampa Bay markets)
Spread: Ravens -1.5
Tickets: As low as $108 on

Three Things to Watch

1. Can the Buccaneers' offense get going?
Any way you look at it, Brady is off to the worst start of his NFL career. Eight touchdown passes through seven games project to just 19 over the course of a full season; that would be his lowest output since 2001, when Brady first replaced Drew Bledsoe in New England. His 6.6 yards per pass attempt are tied for the second-lowest average of Brady's career while the Bucs' 17.7 points per game are second to last in the NFC. Only the Rams (17.3) have done worse.

This downturn is happening despite Brady still having time to throw in the pocket. He's been sacked just 10 times, the least of all full-time NFL quarterbacks, with just two fumbles lost and one interception. The Bucs' plus-three turnover margin remains an area of strength, although they'll be challenged Thursday night by a Ravens defense that's tied for the NFL lead in takeaways (14).

The theories on what's wrong run the gambit, from Brady's marital troubles being an off-field distraction to the team missing two primary pieces from its previous Super Bowl run: tight end Rob Gronkowski and the infamous Antonio Brown.

"No one feels good about where we're at," Brady said after a 21-3 drubbing from the Panthers, a team that fired their head coach just days earlier. "No one feels good about how we played or what we're doing. We're all in it together, and we have to pull ourselves out of it."

How much of the problem is Brady himself? There are concerns his arm is finally losing some zip at age 45. There's public documentation about his competitive spirit boiling over, from destroying tablets on the sideline to losing top target Mike Evans for a game over a fight against the Saints the quarterback was accused of starting.

I think the answer might be simpler; the Bucs don't know how to run the football. They're dead last in rushing offense, averaging 64.4 yards per game, and haven't totaled more than 75 since a season-opening win against Dallas. Top running back Leonard Fournette looks past his prime, averaging just 3.5 yards per game with only one touchdown on the ground.

Tied for 27th in red-zone efficiency, that's where the lack of offensive weapons is exposed the most. It allows teams to focus on Brady, worried about what even potential pressure could do to his 45-year-old body. Add in a whopping dozen players on the injury report, four of them major offensive pieces (TE Cameron Brate, WRs Evans, Julio Jones, and Russell Gage) and it adds up to a mess an aging Brady can't clean up himself.

Can the Ravens' defense provide an opening? They're ranked 23rd overall and just 26th against the pass. But it's not as if the Bucs' last AFC North opponent, the Steelers, were any better (28th and 29th, respectively). Tampa's offense never got going then, forced to settle for four field goals before a late Brady comeback fell short in a 20-18 defeat two weeks ago.

2. Can Lamar get back to finishing off games for the Ravens?
Entering a contract year, Jackson came out like gangbusters for the Ravens. His first three games felt like a second campaign for MVP in the making: 10 touchdown passes, just two interceptions and 243 rushing yards as the Baltimore offense scored a whopping 99 points.

Since then, Lamar's come back down to earth: three TD passes (none on the ground) compared to four interceptions over the past four games. That includes some key mistakes, including four fourth-quarter turnovers against the Giants and Bills that led to close losses. It's easy to lose second-half leads when you're busy handing off points to the other team, a trend that started in Week 2 (where the Dolphins outscored Baltimore 28-3 in the final period) and hasn't let up.

Without those mistakes, the Ravens would be sitting at 7-0 and the top team in the AFC. To be fair, Jackson's been dealing with a nagging hip injury, although he wasn't listed on the team's injury report this week and wiggled it in front of reporters as a joke to show it's OK. But it's clear this team lives and dies with how he performs at the quarterback position.

Jackson will be helped by the successful return of running back Gus Edwards, who ran for two scores and 66 yards last week in his first game since January 2021 following a devastating triple-whammy injury (ACL/Hamstring/LCL). Can the rushing attack take some pressure off Lamar, allowing them to eat up clock in the fourth quarter if the offense builds an early lead? Also keep an eye on tight end Mark Andrews' status; he was hobbled by a knee injury the past few weeks although he did play against the Browns.

3. A field position game
The Bucs do have a top-10 defense, keeping them in several games that could have gotten out of hand. If they're able to eke out turnovers from Jackson, it could put the game in the hands of one of the few Tampa players doing something right on offense: kicker Ryan Succop. Succop is tied for the league lead with 16 field goals made in 17 attempts.

The Ravens counter, of course, with the best kicker of all time in Justin Tucker. He's gone 14-for-15 this year with a missed extra point, a stat sheet that for him is borderline disastrous considering a career built on perfection. But Tucker remains the best ever on game-winning field goals in regulation or overtime; the Ravens only need to reach midfield to have a chance. That's always worth an extra three points, especially in the difficult road environment of Raymond James Stadium.

Final Analysis

This game feels like a do-or-die moment for Brady and Tampa Bay. But if you can only muster 21 total points against the Panthers and Steelers, teams that have a combined 2-10 record this season against other opponents, how can they be expected to produce against the Ravens? Brady's body language tells a difficult story, the greatest of all time finally meeting his match: Father Time.

While Baltimore has its share of problems, expect Thursday night to be the first time we'll see the Ravens expand on a second-half lead instead of squander it.

Prediction: Ravens 31, Buccaneers 13

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

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