4:25 PM EST, CBS – Line: Buccaneers -3.5, Over/Under: 52.5
What was at one point thought of as a potential Super Bowl preview highlights today’s slate of games, as the reigning Super Bowl Champion, Tampa Bay Buccaneers play host to the struggling Buffalo Bills in a matchup of two teams traveling in very different directions. A year after winning the AFC East for the first time in twenty-seven years and advancing to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1993, the Bills (7-5, 2nd in AFC East) were a trendy pick to represent the conference in Super Bowl LVI. However, after racing out to a 4-1 start they’ve proven maddeningly inconsistent, winning just three of their last seven outings. Indeed, Buffalo has looked dominant one week only to implode the next, with nobody but themselves to blame for their missteps. So, what in the name of Jim Kelly is going on in Western New York, you ask? Well, if you’re going to point the finger anywhere on this team, it’s the offense which deserves the blame. Yes, this unit led by (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Josh Allen (65.7%, 3,216 YDS, 6.72 NY/A, 26 TD, 10 INT, 57.4 QBR) has been among the league’s best, ranking fifth in points (28.0), ninth in total yards (387.0), eighth in passing (270.3), and fourteenth in rushing (116.3), but on the flipside has been feast or famine of late with thirteen of their seventeen turnovers (19th Overall) coming in the last seven games. In the three wins during this period their turnover differential is plus-4, but in those three losses it’s been an alarming minus-6. Furthermore, Allen & Co have had little problem moving the football up and down the gridiron in converting a healthy 48.4% of their third downs (2nd Overall), only to routinely bog down within the red zone, where they’ve scored a touchdown on just 58.8% of their opportunities (18th Overall). The main problem is that (Offensive Coordinator) Brian Daboll has developed a penchant of relying a little TOO MUCH on the talents of his young Quarterback. Buffalo’s production on the ground comes largely from Allen, who has accounted for 422 rushing yards and three touchdowns, and at seventy-five attempts is just thirty-three behind the team leader in that particular category, (Sophomore Tailback) Devin Singletary (108 CAR, 495 YDS, 4.6 Y/A, 2 TD). That disparity would mean one thing to a team like say, the Ravens, who rush the ball a ton, but Buffalo only attempts 25.8 runs per game (18th Overall), meaning that Allen accounts for 24.1% of his team’s rushes. Of course, throwing the football gets more and more difficult within the red zone as passing lanes get smaller and close quicker, and not being able to simply line up and run the ball in a conventional manner makes that much more difficult on the Quarterback. At a sturdy 6′-5″, 237 lbs. Allen is a tough figure to bring down in the open field and can be an asset in short-yardage situations, but if he’s having an off-day then it’s very difficult for this unit to get much of anything going. Look no further than how he’s performed in their seven victories in comparison to their five losses; Allen has completed 68.2% of his passes for 282.1 yards per game on a whopping 8.4 net yards per attempt with nineteen touchdowns and five interceptions, while also rushing for three scores in those wins, but in the losses has completed 62.8% of his attempts for 248.2 yards on just 5.4 net yards per attempt with seven touchdowns opposed to five interceptions (not to mention three lost fumbles) and zero rushing scores. Is it too late to develop a strong ground game? Probably, but at this point all that (Head Coach) Sean McDermott’s charges can really do is double-down on the passing game and hope that their Quarterback can continue to play at a high level. With that said, it’s a valid question as to just how good this team really is, for much of their success has come against the bottom of the proverbial barrel; their opponents win percentage checks in at a meager .438, with only four of them currently owning a winning record. Furthermore, they’ve absolutely CRUSHED the likes of the Dolphins (twice), Texans, Jets, and Saints by a combined score of 177-34, with their defense pitching a pair of shutouts along the way. Speaking of the defense, it should be interesting to see how McDermott and (Defensive Coordinator) Leslie Frazier’s troops fair over these final six games without one of their most prominent performers. During their dominant 31-6 victory over New Orleans on Thanksgiving, the Bills lost (Pro-Bowl Cornerback) Tre’Davious White (41 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 6 PD) for the remainder of the campaign with a torn ACL, robbing an opportunistic unit of their top cover man. However, the more pressing concern is how their run defense has been eviscerated against some of their better offenses that they’ve faced; (2020 rushing champion) Derrick Henry and the Titans churned out 146 yards in a 34-31 loss back in mid-October, while the Colts and (2021 leading rusher) Jonathan Taylor hung a whopping 264 rushing yards on them in a 41-15 defeat two weeks ago, to say nothing of last week’s 222 yards allowed to the New England Patriots in a 14-10 defeat. With driving winds of up to 55 MPH, the visiting Pats decided to keep the football near exclusively on the ground in attempting a scant THREE passes all game, rushing the football FORTY-SIX times. The Bills knew that the visitors were going to run it and could utterly nothing to slow them down, with McDermott and many of his players voicing their collective frustration after the affair concluded. After New England opened their ledger with a 64-yard touchdown run (and a surprise two-point conversion) midway through the first quarter, the hosts struck back with a 14-yard scoring strike from Allen to (Sophomore Wideout) Gabriel Davis (). From there it would become a test of field goals in the swirling winds, with Buffalo missing a CRUCIAL 33-yard attempt with just over seven minutes to play that would have cut the deficit to one point. The home side would get the ball back one final time, though their drive would conclude deep into Patriots’ territory as Allen’s desperate heave to Davis on 4th & 14 was deflected to the ground. In the end, McDermott’s charges rushed for ninety-nine yards on twenty-five carries, while Allen could complete just 15-of-30 passes for a meager 145 yards and a touchdown, which given the circumstances was remarkable unto itself. Unfortunately, the loss dropped them the third and final Wild Card in the AFC, only a half-game ahead of a host of teams hovering around .500. The Bills will face the Pats once again for their return leg in Foxborough in two weeks, but in the meantime must renew acquaintances with their rival’s former talisman, Tom Brady (who we’ll get into very shortly). Since arriving in Buffalo, McDermott is 0-6 against the seven-time Super Bowl Champion, while Allen has never beaten him either, posting an 0-4 record.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers (9-3, 1st in NFC South) also went through their version of a midseason malaise, but to their credit have since strung together three consecutive victories to tighten their stranglehold on the NFC South. Indeed, despite hoisting the franchise’s second Lombardi Trophy last February, Tampa Bay hasn’t won the division in fourteen years, which is a streak that appears to be ending relatively soon. With five games left to play, they hold a commanding 4-game lead over their closest competition, the New Orleans Saints, making it academic at this point that (Head Coach) Bruce Arians’ charges are all but assured to add more silverware to their trophy case. With that said the reigning champions have their sights on becoming the first repeat Super Bowl Champion since 2004, which saw the aforementioned Patriots win their third league title in a span of four years. Of course, the Quarterback of those teams was none other than Brady (68.3%, 3,771 YDS, 7.04 NY/A, 34 TD, 10 INT, 66.1 QBR), who has completely transformed the Bucs since arrival just eighteen months ago. Simply put, this guy has turned winning into an artform; prior to his arrival, this was very much a mediocre franchise that had enjoyed just two winning seasons from 2009 to 2019, a period in which they compiled a win percentage of .352, only to turn right around and win all but eight of their thirty-two games (including playoffs) with the future Hall of Famer, equating to a stellar win percentage of .750. Even at 44-years-old, Brady is proving to be among the NFL’s elite passers, leading the league in a slew of passing statistics including completions (347), attempts (508), yards (3,771), and touchdowns (34) en route to leading the highest-scoring offense (31.4). The National Football League’s all-time leader in passing attempts (11,106), passing yards (82,975), and passing touchdowns (615) among other categories, what this guy has managed to do at an age in which many of his contemporaries are well into their retirement is nothing short of remarkable. Granted, nobody takes better care of his body than Brady, who has also benefitted tremendously by the best pass-protection in the league, suffering just fourteen sacks thus far, or in other words a sack percentage of just 2.7%, which would be a career-low for the 22-year veteran. Oh, and nobody has proven to be a better punching bag for him than the Bills, who in twenty years with the Patriots met on thirty-five occasions amassing a ridiculous 35-3 record along the way. In those encounters, Brady completed 63.9% of his attempts for an average of 247.7 yards per game on 7.1 net yards per attempt with seventy touchdowns opposed to twenty-five interceptions, rushing for another two scores as well. Furthermore, the three-time MVP has never lost to either McDermott or Allen, going 6-0 against the former with as many touchdowns as interceptions (4). When we last saw Brady and the Bucs, they completed the season sweep of the Atlanta Falcons with a 30-17 victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium last weekend. The first half was tightly contested as the hosts picked off Brady deep in his own territory and returned it for a touchdown, cutting the deficit to 20-17 heading into halftime. However, it would be all Tampa in the second half, outscoring the home side 10-0 over the final thirty minutes of play. Arians’ troops amassed 425 total yards on twenty-one first downs, with brady carrying the offense once again on 38-of-51 passing for 368 yards, four touchdowns and that aforementioned interception, finding (Receiver) Chris Godwin (82 REC, 949 YDS, 11.6 Y/R, 5 TD) for fifteen receptions on seventeen targets for 143 yards. (Pro-Bowl Wideout) Mike Evans (57 REC, 794 YDS, 13.9 Y/R, 10 TD) added ninety-nine yards on seven catches, while (All-Pro Tight End) Rob Gronkowski (33 REC, 436 YDS, 13.2 Y/R, 6 TD) continued to thrive since returning from a rib injury, hauling in four passes for fifty-eight yards and a pair of scores. His rapport with Brady is the stuff of legends, with the pair combining for a whopping NINETY-THREE touchdowns, which is the most of any Quarterback/Pass-Catcher in NFL history. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if Arians and (Offensive Coordinator) Byron Leftwich find a way to get the run game going, particularly (Tailback) Leonard Fournette (152 CAR, 665 YDS, 4.4 Y/A, 7 TD), who really came on during their run to Super Bowl LV last Winter. Fournette has rushed for 665 yards and seven touchdowns thus far, while also flourishing in the passing game with fifty-eight receptions for 402 yards and another two scores. The Bucs don’t run the football much in averaging just 21.9 attempts per game (31st Overall), but during their previous playoff run managed to flip the script en route to churning out 122.5 yards on 30.3 carries, with the 26-year-old accounting for 75.0 yards of that figure on 4.7 yards per attempt. With a win today, Tampa should be a lock to not only win the NFC South but could very well obtain the no. one seed in the conference; with the likes of the Saints, Carolina Panthers, and New York Jets awaiting them, the Bucs face nobody with a winning record down the stretch, with those three teams posting a dismal 13-23 record (.361). Furthermore, at 9-3 they currently sit third within the NFC hierarchy and just one game behind the Arizona Cardinals for first place, which would ensure not only home field in the playoffs but also the only first round bye. Sure, this is a team that hit the road for two crucial road wins last January in New Orleans and Green Bay, but they also became the first to ever win a Super Bowl in their home stadium. The competition is extremely tight at the top of the conference, but the remaining schedule is a massive advantage for them over these next five weeks.