8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Buccaneers -10.5, Over/Under: 46
Week Eight comes to a close with a pair of NFC teams occupying opposite ends of the spectrum, as the struggling, young New York Giants play host to the surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers, from MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands, New Jersey. Though it happens quite frequently in basketball, it’s rare to see a team rebuild themselves into a legitimate contender via Free Agency in football, but that has nonetheless been the case with the Buccaneers (5-2, 1st in NFC South), who have emerged as a serious threat within the NFC. Coming off a disappointing, mistake-laden 7-9 campaign, Tampa decided enough was indeed enough, cutting ties with former No. One Overall Pick and presumed Franchise Quarterback, Jameis Winston, who in his time with the club, committed an astounding 111 turnovers in five years (72 games), by far and away the most in the league over that span, including an unforgivable thirty-five last year alone. Head Coach, Bruce Arians, continuously lamented the errors made by his signal-caller, and how they routinely held back a team that certainly did not lack quality, ranking Third Overall in both Points (28.6) and Total Yards (415.5) in 2019. So how do you wash away the bitter taste of a No. One Pick turned bust, you ask? By signing the GOAT himself, Tom muthaf@#$%^ Brady, that’s how.
It’s really a fascinating story as to how Brady (65.7%, 1,910 YDS, 6.75 NY/A, 18 TD, 4 INT, 70.7 QBR) became a Buccaneer, or even left the Patriots in the first place for that matter, ending arguably the most successful tenure by any single player in NFL History. Over the course of his twenty years with the club, he guided New England to a ridiculous seventeen AFC East Titles, including thirteen appearances in the AFC Championship, nine Conference Titles, and six Lombardi Trophies, while also claiming fourteen Pro-Bowl nods, three NFL MVP awards, and four Super Bowl MVPs to boot. Simply put, there has never been a more decorated player, PERIOD. However, New England insisted on turning the page and looking to the future, parting ways with the 43-year old, who in turn insisted at continuing his playing career well into his forties, which is something that is very rare. In the end, the Pats didn’t think he could maintain a high level of play into his mid-40s, but Brady did, so the two sides agreed to disagree, leading the future Hall of Famer to the Bucs, who were in dire need of a steady hand at the position, with Arians and General Manager, Jason Licht (who worked as an executive with the Patriots), believing that he could help their charges reach their lofty potential. So with nearly half of the campaign in the books, is it really any surprise that Brady has done exactly that in Tampa? Even without a proper Offseason to get acclimated to his surroundings and work his body into shape, the veteran appears to get more and more comfortable with each passing week, off to statistically his best start in over a decade, which is really saying something, tossing eighteen touchdowns in seven games, posting a touchdown percentage of 6.7%, his highest since 2010. To put this into perspective, he threw TWENTY-FOUR last season (16 games) altogether. With that said, as much as he’s elevated the play of his supporting cast, they have done him just as much good. When you acquire a talent such as Brady, you turn over every stone in an attempt to supply him with the necessary weaponry, which is precisely what Licht did, and in some cases continues to do so. Not long after putting pen to paper, Brady welcomed his favorite target, All-Pro Tight End, Rob Gronkowski (22 REC, 280 YDS, 12.7 Y/R, 2 TD), out of retirement, to join an already loaded Receiving Corps featuring Pro Bowlers, Mike Evans (25 REC, 318 YDS, 12.7 Y/R, 6 TD), and Chris Godwin (25 REC, 279 YDS, 11.2 Y/R, 2 TD). Former Fourth Overall Pick, Leonard Fournette (35 CAR, 173 YDS, 4.9 Y/A, 2 TD), was also picked up on the cheap following his release from Jacksonville, while the proverbial icing on the cake could prove the be none other than Antonio Brown; the mercurial yet prolific Receiver burned a city full of bridges last season, but managed to nonetheless endear himself to Brady in the brief period of time he had spent in Foxborough before his eventual release, putting pen to paper on a cheap, one-year deal for the remainder of the campaign. The four-time All-Pro will be available next week having served his eight-game suspension due to a lingering sexual assault case. With Brown (32) and Gronkowski (31) having plenty left in the tank, and Fournette (25) returning from injury, Licht may have added not one, not two, but three Pro-Bowlers to an Offense that continues to grow, and he’s done so with the triumvirate making a paltry $12.5 million in the process. Not a bad bit of business if we do say so ourselves.
When we last saw the Buccaneers, they extended their impressive start to the 2020 campaign to 5-2, torching the Las Vegas Raiders in a 45-20 rout. Though this affair was relatively close throughout the First Half, Tampa really put their foot on the gas in the second, outscoring the hosts 24-10 over the final thirty minutes, running off twenty-one unanswered in the final stanza alone. This was vintage Brady, who completed 33-of-45 passes for 369 yards and four touchdowns, peppering the football across the field to nine different targets, with unheralded Receiver, Scott Miller (22 REC, 365 YDS, 16.6 Y/R, 2 TD), hauling in six receptions for 109 yards and a score, with the aforementioned Godwin reeling in nine catches for eighty-eight yards and a touchdown, while Gronkowski made some history with his Quarterback, ensnaring his second score of the season, making it a staggering NINETY-TWO touchdowns between the two over the course of their careers, pulling them into a tie with Steve Young and Jerry Rice for second on the all-time list. Brady would make some more history on that day, surpassing fellow ageless Quarterback, Drew Brees, for the top spot on the all-time touchdown list, logging his 559th in the final period of play. He’ll look to to keep hold of that record in tonight’s meeting with the Giants, a franchise that he has quite a bit of history with; Brady has met New York on five occasions in the Regular Season, posting a 4-1 record with six touchdowns and four interceptions, though it’s been their two Postseason battles that loom largest, with Big Blue besting him in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI, the first of which spoiled what would have been the first perfect season since 1972.
Meanwhile, the Giants (1-6, 4th in NFC East) have opted to rebuild their franchise the old-fashioned way, with General Manager, Dave Gettleman, utilizing building blocks via the NFL Draft. If we’re being completely honest, this is a franchise that has been in dire need of a full-scale rebuild for ages now, having eroded into irrelevance over the past three years, in which they’ve managed to compile a dismal 12-36 record (.250) from 2017 to 2019. In fact, since upsetting Brady and the Patriots a decade ago, New York has advanced to the Playoffs just once (2016), mired in mediocrity at 51-77 (.398) since hoisting the franchise’s fourth Lombardi Trophy in 2011. And it’s with that said that Gettleman has set out to change the fortunes of Big Blue for the better, preferring to raise the structure to the ground and rebuild piece by piece rather than apply a proverbial series of band-aids. However, that of course requires plenty of TIME, which is a commodity that is rarely in supply when you’re playing in the largest media market in the nation. His critics (of which there are many) will be quick to point out that he’s had plenty of it already, having already changed Head Coaches from Pat Shurmur, the man that he had appointed upon his arrival, to the unheralded Joe Judge.
Of course, the hiring of Judge was one of the most surprising of the Offseason, leaving many in the Empire State scratching their collective heads. Far from a known commodity within the coaching ranks, Judge had spent the previous eight years heading the Patriots’ Special Teams unit before becoming Bill Belichick’s latest disciple to venture into the wilderness of Head Coaches. The 38-year old has been billed as a culture-builder, though we’ve seen over the last two decades how Belichick’s understudies have faired when it comes to establishing that New England culture with very mixed results; while the likes of Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel (23-15, .605) and Miami’s Brian Flores (8-14, .364) have impressed with their current clubs, there have been far more that have flat-out failed to meet expectations, including Romeo Crennel (39-57, .337), Eric Mangini (33-47, .413), Josh McDaniels (11-17, .393), and Matt Patricia (12-25-1, .329), with only Vrabel managing a Playoff birth. So where will Judge fall on that list, you ask? Well, it’s obviously far too early to answer that query properly, but the early returns have done nothing but confirm what we all knew to be true: he has A LOT of work ahead of him. The vast majority of that labor appears to be on the offensive side of the football, where the Giants simply lack the necessary talent to compete in today’s NFL, where you need to score points more than ever in order to succeed. It’s hard to believe that just two years ago this unit boasted talents such as All-Pro Receiver, Odell Beckham Jr., and 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year, Saquon Barkley, and neither can be counted upon to make plays for them in the present; the former was traded to the Cleveland Browns in the Spring of 2019, while the latter unfortunately tore his ACL just two games into the current campaign. Needless to say, Offensive Coordinator, Jason Garrett, had undoubtedly crafted much of the Offense around the versatile skills of Barkley (25 TCH, 94 YDS, 3.8 Y/T, 0 TD), who since being drafted Second Overall in the 2018 NFL Draft has amassed 3,563 yards from scrimmage and twenty-three touchdowns on 646 touches, averaging a stellar 114.9 yards per game. With those plans torn to shreds, Judge and Garrett have been forced to put even more on the plate of Sophomore Quarterback, Daniel Jones (61.9%, 1,410 YDS, 5.14 NY/A, 5 TD, 7 INT, 56.2 QBR), whom Gettleman shocked the world in selecting Sixth Overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. While the 23-year old has shown glimpses of his potential, he’s remained terribly inconsistent, struggling behind a porous Offensive Line that has yet to afford him the luxury of a clean pocket or open the requisite holes for the running game to prosper. However, Jones’ biggest flaw has proven to be his decision-making, with a staggering THIRTY-FOUR turnovers in just twenty games, including eleven through the first seven outings of 2020 alone. To put this into perspective, he’s turned over the football at least once in every game of his brief career save for one, averaging a miserable 1.7 turnovers per game. Nothing changes the fortunes of a game more so than turnovers, and since he was appointed the Starting Quarterback back in Week Three of the 2019 season, the Giants have gone 4-15 (.210) with a turnover differential of minus-14 over that span. Furthermore, he’s developed a worrying habit of turning the football over in the Red Zone, tossing three interceptions in that particular area of the field thus far, which has been the prime reason for their struggles in this department, ranking next-to-last in Red Zone Efficiency (33.3%).
When we last saw the Giants, they very nearly managed to string together what would have been their first winning streak since late December, but nevertheless snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in a heartbreaking 22-21 loss at the Philadelphia Eagles. New York was clearly the better side for the majority of the affair, with the injury-ravaged hosts failing to get much of anything until the final quarter of play. Leading 21-10 following a 6-yard strike courtesy of Jones to his Receiver, Sterling Shepard (), the visitors finally capitulated defensively, allowing Philadelphia to manufacture back-to-back drives of 70+ yards, with each culminating in a touchdown pass from Quarterback, Carson Wentz, the latter proving to be a beautiful game-winner eighteen yards down the sideline and over the shoulder of his Tailback, Boston Scott, who was draped by a defender. Now trailing by one point with forty seconds remaining on the clock, Jones would quickly log a pair of first downs before losing the football via a sack fumble, ending the contest. Though the Defense held up their end of the bargain for the bulk of the night, the Giants were undone by the play of their Quarterback, who could muster only 180 yards on 20-of-30 passing with a pair of touchdowns and turnovers apiece, and though they rushed for 160 yards overall, that figure was very misleading as Jones accounted for a career-high ninety-two of that total, with eighty coming via one of the most awkward runs authored by a player at his position. Furthermore, they struggled mightily on third down (3-of-10), and were flagged nine times for a loss of sixty-two yards. 2020 continues to be very much of a learning experience for Judge and his charges, who despite their woeful record, haven’t been far from success, with four of their losses coming by one possession, or in other words a combined sixteen points. Of course, with the NFC East dragging along at an NFL-worst 7-20-1 at this point, New York is only one string of victories away from climbing the rungs of the division, trailing the Eagles by just 1.5 games.