8:15 PM EST, Prime Video – Line: Ravens -1.5, Over/Under: 45
Week Eight kicks off with what was initially thought to be a potential Super Bowl preview, only to turn into a battle of two sides simply trying to find some semblance of consistency, as the struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers welcome the Baltimore Ravens for a primetime affair at Raymond-James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Indeed, the Ravens (4-3, T-1st in AFC North) have been nothing if not consistent thus far, though not in the way that they’d like, alternating wins and losses throughout the first seven games of the regular season. After last season was utterly WRECKED due to injuries/illness, many were pegging Baltimore to go on a revenge tour in 2022, particularly (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Lamar Jackson, who appeared primed for an MVP campaign following arduous offseason negotiations over a mammoth contract extension (which have been put on hold until the end of the campaign). For his part, Jackson (pictured below) is healthy and back to his playmaking ways, tossing thirteen touchdowns opposed six interceptions, while getting back to form on the ground, where he’s rushed for 510 yards and two more scores on an NFL-best 7.7 yards per carry. The 2019 MVP has had to carry much of the load this season, what with a supporting cast that has already sustained a number of injuries; the Offensive Line is slowly working (veteran Left Tackle) Ronnie Stanly back from a long-term ankle injury, while (Right tackle) Ja’Waun James has landed on Injured Reserve, along with (young Tailback) J.K. Dobbins, who after participating in three games following his rehab from ACL surgery has landed on short term IR due to soreness in that same knee. Those absences aside, this is about what we’ve come to expect from the blackbirds, who averaged 25.9 points (6th Overall) on 355.9 total yards (14th Overall), including 156.3 rushing yards (5th Overall) on a healthy 5.4 yards per carry (2nd Overall), while offering a relatively pedestrian passing attack that ranks twenty-sixth in yards (199.6) and fourteenth in net yards per attempt (6.29). While (Pro-Bowl Tight End) Mark Andrews remains one of the most productive at his position, there continues to be a lack of viable options in the Receiving Corps, though if you listen to (Head Coach) John Harbaugh, the real issue of late has been the red zone offense, which has left A LOT to be desired; the Ravens rank twelfth in this particular category (58.3%), but have struggled immensely in this regard over the last three games, with more field goals (7) than touchdowns (6) within the 20-yard line. Granted, Justin Tucker is an ALL-WORLD Kicker, but we think that Harbaugh would prefer that he kicks more extra points than field goals. With that said, there have been bigger issues on Defense, where the transition to (Defensive Coordinator) Mike Macdonald, who worked in that same capacity for Harbaugh’s brother, Jim at Michigan has been far from smooth thus far, with the Ravens allowing 23.0 points (21st Overall) on 366.4 total yards (23rd Overall), with the pass defense in particular suffering. Again, the Secondary has been banged up for sure, but there has been a noticeable lack of punch up front where this unit is long in the tooth. Harbaugh and (General Manager) Eric DeCosta added (veteran Edge-Rusher) Jason Pierre-Paul a few weeks ago to boost this area of weakness, with the 33-year-old producing a sack and a pressure in four games. Fortunately, this unit has managed to get their hands on the football quite a bit with the third-most takeaways in the NFL (14), while still doing a solid job of getting off the field on third down where they’ve offered a 35.0% success rate (9th Overall).
When we last saw the Ravens, they continued their maddening trend of alternating wins and losses, besting the Browns in a narrow 23-20 affair from M&T Bank Stadium last weekend. Of course, the blood feud between these two franchises runs DEEP, what with the Dawg Pound relocating to Charm City back in 1996 before eventually becoming the Browns again as an expansion team three years later. Needless to say, these teams DO NOT like each other, which generally makes for a testy encounter whenever they meet. This one was no different, folks, as Cleveland raced out to an early 10-3 lead in the first quarter before Baltimore turned the tide, running off seventeen unanswered points until things got tighter in the third quarter. After Tucker extended the lead back to ten points courtesy of a 55-yard field goal, the visitors quickly marched seventy-five yards downfield in seven plays, cutting the deficit to three points with nine minutes left to pay. From there, the hosts moved the ball just outside of the red zone, before (young Tailback) Justice Hill was stripped of the football at the 16-yard line, with the Browns recovering possession. Though it would appear that Jacoby Brissett hit Amari Cooper for the go-ahead touchdown, the play would be overturned due to offensive pass interference from the latter, setting up Cade York for a potential game-tying 60-yard field goal. However, (young Linebacker) Malik would get his hands on the kick, forcing it wide left, essentially ending the affair altogether. In the end, Harbaugh’s troops may have been outgained 336-254, but controlled time of possession for a commanding 34:04 thanks in large part to 160 rushing yards on forty-four carries, while vexing Cleveland on third down (2-of-11) and forcing a pair of crucial turnovers. Jackson only threw sixteen passes, completing nine for 120 yards, while adding another fifty-nine on the ground, but kept good care of the football, while the home side’s punishing rushing attack did its thing. Making his first appearance following rehab from ACL surgery, (veteran Tailback) Gus Edwards pummeled his way to sixty-six yards and two touchdowns on sixteen attempts, while Hill added another twenty-six yards on five carries. That veteran Defensive Line showed up in a big way in this one, with Justin Houston and Calais Campbell combining for three sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. Oh, and Tucker continued flex with a perfect 3-of-3 on field goals, bringing his ledger this season to a sterling 14-of-15, including five from over fifty yards. Looking to tonight’s trip to Tampa, the Ravens have four consecutive meetings dating back to 2002, covering one of their last three encounters. On the whole, Baltimore is 4-6 both straight-up and against the spread in their last ten games overall, and an even 5-5 on the road. When they last met back in 2018, a rookie Lamar Jackson won his fourth start in five games in a 20-12 affair at M&T Bank Stadium, completing 14-of-23 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for another ninety-five yards and a lost fumble on eighteen carries. Edwards had quite a day in this one, rushing for a game-high 104 yards and a touchdown on nineteen attempts. On the injury front, (Cornerbacks) Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters were full participants in this short week of practice, with Harbaugh managing the bodies of Edwards, Stanley, and Campbell, who should all play tonight. Keep an eye on Andrews, who has been dealing with a bulky knee of late and was shut out with zero catches in last weekend’s win over the Browns. The All-Pro hasn’t practiced this week and is officially listed as questionable for tonight’s game.
Meanwhile, with seven games in the books, we’re not going out on a limb stating that this is NOT how the Buccaneers (3-4, T-1st in NFC South) envisioned this campaign playing out to this point. Granted, they’re still first place in arguably the weakest division in the NFL, but even that may not be enough to save them as their last two losses have come at the hands of a pair of teams that they were heavily favored against. In back-to-back losses to the Steelers (18-20) and Panthers (3-21), the Bucs were favored by more than eight points on each occasion, only to crash and burn in spectacular fashion. Indeed, there’s a storm brewing in South Florida, and it’s NOT a hurricane, for what we referring to is the smoke coming out of (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Tom Brady’s ears following these two defeats. By and large, the biggest talking point has been the uninspiring play of the Offense, which sunk to new depths during this stretch, averaging a paltry 10.5 points on 313.0 total yards, including a scant 60.5 yards via the run on just 2.9 yards per carry. Granted, Tampa hasn’t really run the football that much since acquiring Brady (pictured below) three years ago, but we wonder if a little more balance would help alleviate an ailing passing game that has produced just one touchdown on eighty-nine attempts. Indeed, conventional wisdom would lead us to believe that when fielding a Quarterback at this particular age, it would be beneficial to support him with a strong rushing attack, which has NOT been the case, folks; the Bucs are churning out just 64.4 yards per game on the ground, which would be the lowest figure in NFL history if the season ended today. And to put that into further perspective, they’ve rushed for fewer yards as a TEAM than their opposing Quarterback, the aforementioned Lamar Jackson, has totaled by HIMSELF. So, what in the name of Leroy Selmon is going on down on the Gulf Coast, you ask? Well, though it has been predicted for nearly five years now, it appears that Brady has finally met that proverbial cliff. Last year, the 45-year-old led the league in passing attempts (719), completions (485), and touchdowns (43), and after retiring for nearly six weeks probably wishes that he just stayed home at this point; Brady has regressed mightily in a number of areas, including touchdown percentage (2.7%, down from 6.0%), yards per attempt (6.6, down from 7.4), yards per completion (9.8, down from 11.0), and QBR (53.2, down from 68.1). The Offense as a whole has performed well below expectations, ranking twenty-sixth in points (17.7), twenty-second in total yards (341.8), and dead-last in rushing offense (64.4), while struggling to simply maintain drives with a third-down success rate of 35.1% (26th Overall) as well as getting six in the red zone on 47.4% of their attempts (27th Overall). It’s as if everyone decided to go their separate ways following their loss to the Rams in the playoffs, only for Brady to unretire and force the franchise to pull themselves back from the brink of transition and try to contend once again. However, Bruce Arians stepped down from his post as Head Coach to take an elevated position within the organization, while the likes of Rob Gronkowski (retired), Antonio Brown (cut), Alex Cappa (free agent) Ali Marpet (free agent), Ndamukong Suh (free agent), Jason Pierre-Paul (free agent), and Ryan Jensen (injured reserve) are just some of the names who were fixtures during their championship run two years ago to leave the sunshine state. Essentially, the band disbanded, and only some of the members have returned, and for some reason the world expected them to continue making the same sweet music, which simply hasn’t been the case. For the first time in his career, brady has come under fire with some publicly questioning his commitment to his team, and while we’re not ready to sling that accusation at the goat, we do find it interesting that he’s facing his first three-game losing streak in TWENTY years, with an insane 302 consecutive games passing without three straight losses for the future Hall-of-Famer.
When we last saw the Buccaneers, they plummeted into what (Head Coach) Todd Bowles has described as a “dark place” following last weekend’s stunning 21-3 upset on the road at the lowly Panthers. Needless to say, the outcome of this was shocking as Tampa fell to a struggling outfit that within the last two weeks had fired their Head Coach (Matt Rhule), traded away two playmakers from an already dysfunctional Offense (Christian McCaffrey and Robbie Anderson), and had every reason to tank for the number one pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, the Bucs could never get going in a listless performance that saw the tone set early as Brady appeared to have found the typically sure-handed Mike Evans deep down the middle of the field, only for the perennial Pro-Bowler to bobble the football away for the most egregious of missed opportunities. The rest of the afternoon went as follows: punt, punt, punt, punt end of the first half, followed punt, downs, punt, FIELD GOAL, punt, downs, and the end of the game. The visitors could muster just 322 total yards on seventeen first downs, including a scant forty-six rushing yards on sixteen attempts, with a miserable showing on third down (2-of-12), and 1-of-3 output on fourth down. Brady completed 32-of-49 passes for 290 yads with no touchdowns and no turnovers, distributing the football to ten different players, though all it added up to was a mere THREE points. Neither Leonard Fournette nor Rachaad White could get anything going in the run game, while Evans couldn’t make up for that early gaffe despite totaling a team-high nine catches for ninety-six yards. And when the Offense struggles like this, it’s only a matter of time before even the stoutest of Defenses slips up, which is what happened on this afternoon, with Bowels’ troops relinquishing three touchdowns of fifteen yards or more to an opponent that appeared to be lacking any real weapons. (Veteran journeyman) P.J. Walker hung in there and made plays when he needed to, completing 16-of-22 passes for 177 yards and a pair of touchdowns with no turnovers, tossing scores of twenty and twenty-nine yards respectively, with the Bucs only able to register one single sack and three hits of the passer. The Panthers also pushed around one of the toughest run defenses in the league, amassing 173 yards on twenty-seven carries, marking the third time in the last four contest that they’ve been gashed for over 150 rushing yards, which leaves us to wonder just what in the hell will happen when they face the Jackson and the Ravens’ vaunted ground game? As we stated earlier, Tampa Bay hasn’t beaten Baltimore since 2002, and has generally struggled in this particular matchup, averaging just 11.5 points over the last four meetings. 4-6 against the spread in their last ten games overall and 5-5 in their last ten at Raymond-James Stadium, the Bucs are 6-3 against the spread in their last ten outings as an underdog, which is the case tonight. Over the past decade, they’ve been an underdog against the blackbirds three times, and are 2-1 against the spread. On the injury front, there are a slew of players listed as questionable for tonight’s affair, with the likes of Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Logan Ryan, Akiem Hicks, Antoine Winfield Jr, Russell age, Cameron Brate, Julio Jones, and the aforementioned Evans were all limited throughout the short week of practice and are at risk for tonight’s contest.