Tampa Bay Buccaneers The Buccaneers set a team record with 13 wins, one of which was in Philadelphia in Week Six, but none of that matters as the playoffs began and the Eagles bring a confident squad with a powerful rushing attack to Raymond James Stadium for the Wild Card round Scott Smith
Not long after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Super Bowl LV celebrations started to wind down last February, Head Coach Bruce Arians said something in his final address to the team that he would end up repeating, in one fashion or another, multiple times throughout the 2021 offseason and well into training camp. "When I said goodbye, we said goodbye to this season, this team," said Arians. "Next year is a different team. When we come back we're not Super Bowl champs, we're just the Tampa Bay Buccaneers."
The message, of course, is that possessing the Lombardi Trophy at the end of one season does not magically make you a title contender the next season. All the hard work is still necessary, nothing will behanded to you and there will be many new challenges to overcome.
The Buccaneers took that message to hurt and produced a 13-4 regular season in 2021, tying for the best record in the league and setting a new franchise record for wins. They won a division title, something they did not do in 2020, and secured the second seed in the NFC playoff standings, guaranteeing at least one home game, plus another one if they can beat the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium.
And now as the Buccaneers began a new postseason journey, Arians has a very similar message for his team to the one he delivered last February. Those thirteen wins have no bearing on what is coming next, besides setting the playoff seedings.
"As soon as everybody walked into the building today - 2021 is over," said Arians on Wednesday as the Bucs began their Wild Card practice week. "This is a whole new season, and nothing matters except winning this week, and everybody is in tune to that. You can feel it in the building."
The opponent is a familiar one. Not only did the Bucs and Eagles meet in Week Six, with Tampa Bay holding onto a 28-22 decision at Lincoln Financial Field on a Thursday night, but Philadelphia is actually the most common postseason opponent in franchise history. Tampa Bay and Philly have already met four times in the playoffs, splitting them down the middle. The most recent brings the fondest memories to Bucs fans, as Ronde Barber's unforgettable 92-yard pick-six sealed a 27-10 win for the visitors in the 2002 NFC Championship Game, the last contest ever played at Veterans Stadium. Tampa Bay would go on to win its first Super Bowl.
On the other hand, the Eagles don't exactly look the same as they did 13 weeks ago. Losing to the Bucs dropped Philadelphia to 2-4 and they would lose two of their next three as well. But the Eagles turned things around rather suddenly under first-year Head Coach Nick Sirianni and won six of their last eight, with the final loss a meaningless Week 18 game against Dallas in which Philly mostly played their reserves.
"Oh yeah, [they're] totally different - playing with a ton of confidence, won a bunch of ballgames since we played them," said Arians. "Once you get in the playoffs, anything can happen, so they're going to be fired up. They've got a ton of weapons and they look pretty healthy. So, yeah, it's a totally different football team than we played back there in October."
The Eagles revamped their offensive approach to emphasize mobile quarterback Jalen Hurts, a deep stable of talented running backs and one of the NFL's best offensive lines. That led to the emergence of the NFL's most prolific rushing attack, with the Eagles gaining nearly 160 yards on the ground per game. The Eagles' defense, led by a ferocious front four that gets pressure without blitzing, holding seven of nine opponents under 19 points before that 56-21 loss to Dallas in Week 18.
The Buccaneers are thus prepared for an even bigger fight than they got from the Eagles in Week Six, when a game that appeared to be completely in control of the visiting team turned into a squeaker at the end as Philadelphia rallied behind two Hurts touchdowns. And that means, even if the Bucs played enough to beat the Eagles three months ago, they'll have to perform even better to make it two in a row and stay alive in the Super Bowl hunt.
"If we want to win and not go home, you have to amp it up a notch," said tight end Rob Gronkowski, who knows an awful lot about playoff football. "You have to make sure that you're on top of your game at all times because there's a couple of times during the season where you're not really on top of your game. A majority of the time, you're on top of your game in the regular season, but now, it's playoff time and you have to make sure you're amped, you have the energy levels high and that you're ready to go every single play because every play is huge in the playoffs."
GAME AND BROADCAST DETAILS
Philadelphia Eagles (9-8, #7 NFC Seed) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4, #2 NFC Seed)
Sunday, January 16, 1:00 p.m. ET
Raymond James Stadium (capacity: 65,618)
TV Broadcast Team: Joe Buck (play-by-play), Troy Aikman (analyst), Erin Andrews (reporter), Tom Rinaldi (reporter)
Radio: 98Rock (WXTB, 97.9 FM), Flagship Station
Radio Broadcast Team: Gene Deckerhoff (play-by-play), Dave Moore (analyst), T.J. Rives (reporter)
Coming to the game or enjoying pregame festivities? Check out our Tailgate Packages or visit the Buccaneers Gameday Page for everything you need to know about Bucs Beach and more!
ALL-TIME HEAD-TO-HEAD SERIES
This will be the second straight game in this series that features the defending Super Bowl champs playing on the road against a team that had a sub-.500 record the season before. The Buccaneers will try to make sure the outcome in this one is both the same and different than the last meeting in 2018.
Two weeks into that 2018 season, the Eagles came to Raymond James Stadium after beating Tom Brady's Patriots, 41-33, in a thrilling Super Bowl LII shootout the previous February. The Buccaneers had finished that same 2017 season with a 5-11 record, though they had looked impressive in a 2018 opening-week, 48-40 win in New Orleans. The Buccaneers beat the Eagles, 27-21, with Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing four touchdown passes, including a 75-yarder to former Eagle DeSean Jackson on the first play of the game. It would be the Eagles that went back to the playoffs that season, though, earning a Wild Card berth while the Bucs slumped to 5-11 and initiated a coaching change.
The Buccaneers obviously want a repeat win, which would also mean the defending champs didn't take one on the chin from a possibly feisty underdog.
A win would also allow Tampa Bay to even up the all-time series with one of the most significant rivals in franchise history. The Eagles led that series, 8-7, or 10-9 if playoffs are included. Tampa Bay has played more games in the postseason against Philadelphia than any other team and has split those four meetings down the middle.
Many of Tampa Bay's best moments in their head-to-head history with the Eagles have occurred in Philadelphia. There's the 2002 NFC Championship Game, of course, but the 2003 Monday Night Football season opener was a particularly satisfying win, as well. The Buccaneers were there in Philadelphia in 1999 when Donovan McNabb made his NFL debut, and they didn't exactly treat him well. Tampa Bay started its 1995 campaign by sacking Randall Cunningham five times and winning handily at Philadelphia; that was Warren Sapp's NFL debut and he had one of those five sacks. Even the Bucs' most recent trip to Philly, in 2015, was notable: At the time, the Bucs' 45-17 win over the Eagles was their highest-scoring road game ever.
The Bucs' biggest highlight in their series with the Eagles is unquestionably that aforementioned 2000 NFCC Game. The Buccaneers had seen their playoff dreams die at Veterans Stadium each of the previous two winters and had even lost in their personal house of horrors earlier in that '02 campaign. But the Bucs showed up ready to battle and overcome a long game-opening kickoff and a Philly touchdown just a minute into the game. Joe Jurevicius's unforgettable 71-yard catch-and-run began the turnaround, and the Bucs stymied McNabb for most of the night with two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception off the prolific quarterback. Down 20-10, the Eagles mounted a late rally behind McNabb's improvisational big plays and were closing in on the end zone with five minutes left. That's when Ronde Barber made perhaps the single greatest play in team annals, intercepting a short pass and returning it 92 yards for the game-sealing touchdown.
Four seasons later, Barber terrorized McNabb again with a pair of pick-sixes in a 23-21 win at Raymond James Stadium in 2006, the game that famously ended on Matt Bryant's 62-yard field goal. Until Mike Edwards pulled off the feat in Week Two of this season against Atlanta, Barber had been the only player in team history to have two interception-return touchdowns in the same game.
Tampa Bay's very first playoff game also featured the Eagles. After winning the NFC Central in 1979, just the franchise's fourth season of existence, the Bucs got a home game to start the playoffs and beat Philadelphia, 24-17. Ricky Bell set still-standing team records for carries (38) and rushing yards (142) in a playoff game.
NOTABLE CONNECTIONS Tampa Bay General Manager Jason Licht had a five-year run in the Eagles' personnel department from 2003-07. He started out as the team's assistant director of player personnel but was promoted to vice president of player personnel for his final two seasons with the team. Todd Bowles, the Buccaneers' defensive coordinator, had a short stint in the same role for Philadelphia. After finishing the 2011 season as the Miami Dolphins' interim head coach following the in-season dismissal of Tony Sparano, Bowles joined the Eagles' staff in 2012 as the team's secondary coach. Another dismissal, this time of Defensive Coordinator Juan Castillo in October, once again bumped Bowles' title up as he took over that job for the remainder of the season. Mike Caldwell, the Buccaneers' inside linebackers coach, spent time as an Eagle both as a player and a coach. His 11-year playing career included four seasons (1998-2001), during which he logged 62 games and 29 of his 49 career starts. Caldwell started a single-season best 16 games for the Eagles in 2011, leading to a career-high 101 tackles. Caldwell then started his coaching career by climbing up the ladder in Philly, first as a training camp intern in 2007, then as a defensive quality control coach for two years, an assistant linebackers coach for one more and finally as the linebackers coach in 2011-12. Buccaneers Specialists Coach and former NFL kicker Chris Boniol played two seasons for Philadelphia (1997-98). Alex Tanney, who started his coaching career this season as an offensive quality control coach for the Eagles, saw time with eight different NFL teams as a quarterback, most recently as a backup with the New York Giants. One of his stops was in Tampa, where he signed with the Bucs in May of 2014 but was released later that August. SENIOR COACHING STAFFS
Head Coach Bruce Arians Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong
Head Coach Nick Sirianni Offensive Coordinator Shane Steichen Defensive Coordinator Jonathan Gannon Special Teams Coordinator Michael Clay KEY 2021 ROSTER ADDITIONS
S Andrew Adams (FA) RB Kenjon Barner (FA) RB Le'Veon Bell (FA) LB K.J. Britt (fifth-round draft pick) WR Jaelon Darden(fourth-round draft pick) CB Pierre Desir (FA) CB Dee Delaney (FA) CB Rashard Robinson (FA) LB Grant Stuard (7th-round pick) WR Breshad Perriman (WR) OL Robert Hainsey (third-round draft pick) CB Richard Sherman(FA) QB Kyle Trask (second-round draft pick) OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (first-round draft pick)
T Le'Raven Clark (FA) C Landon Dickerson (2nd-round draft pick) QB Joe Flacco (UFA) RB Kenneth Gainwell (5th-round draft pick) S Anthony Harris (UFA) DE Ryan Kerrigan (FA) CB Zech McPhearson (4th-round draft pick) QB Gardner Minshew (T-JAX) CB Steven Nelson (FA) CB Josiah Scott (T-JAX) P Arryn Siposs (FA) WR Devonta Smith (1st-round draft pick) DT Milton Williams (3rd-round draft pick) ADDITIONAL 2021 CHANGES OF NOTE
While "keeping the band" together on the field for a run at another championship, the Buccaneers also managed to keep their coaching staff almost entirely intact for 2021. The lone departure was Offensive Assistant Antwaan Randle El, who left to coach the receivers on Dan Campbell's staff in Detroit. There were two additions to Arians' staff: Offensive Assistant A.Q. Shipley and Assistant Wide Receivers Coach Thaddeus Lewis. Mike Greenberg, who provided invaluable help to Jason Licht in the efforts to keep the Bucs' Super Bowl-winning roster together as the team's director of football administration, was promoted during the offseason to vice president of football administration. Greenberg is entering his 12th year with the team. After playing their 2020 home schedule in front of audiences ranging from empty stands to about 25% capacity, the Buccaneers will be at full capacity at Raymond James Stadium in 2021. And we do mean full capacity. The defending champions have already sold out every home game this season; the last time every game at Raymond James Stadium sold out was in 2009. The Buccaneers introduced new uniforms in 2020 that were heavily influenced by the look the team had during its first Super Bowl era but also included a brand new alternate set with matching pewter jerseys and pants. That gave the team four combinations last season: pewter on pewter, white on white, white on pewter and red on pewter. The Bucs will use a fifth combination in 2021, with a red jersey over white pants, which they will wear in the Sunday Night Football spotlight at home against the Saints in Week 15.
The Eagles made a change at the top in 2021, dismissing Head Coach Doug Pederson, who had led the team to its first Super Bowl championship after the 2017 season and additional playoff berths in 2018 and 2019. The Eagles decided to change directions after a 4-11-1 campaign in 2020 and turned to Nick Sirianni, who had been the Colts' offensive coordinator the previous three seasons. Upon announcing Sirianni's hiring, the team's website said he "wowed the eagles in the interview process with his energy, his intelligence, and his edge, sharing a vision with the team in an extensive meeting in Florida earlier this week." The site also referred to him as "a natural leader and communicator." With a new head coach comes a whole new staff, highlighted by Defensive Coordinator Jonathan Gannon and Offensive Coordinator Shane Steichen. Gannon followed Sirianni to Philadelphia from Indianapolis, where he had been the defensive backs coach for the previous three seasons. He was influenced earlier in his career by Minnesota Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer but said he would install a scheme that fit the Eagles' personnel. He stresses the "HITS principle," which stands for hustle, intensity, takeaways and smartness. Steichen worked with Sirianni when both were assistants for the Chargers, and he took over as the Offensive Coordinator in Los Angeles last year, helping rookie QB Justin Herbert put together a monster debut season. After bringing in a new coaching staff, the Eagles then also made a very big decision at the most important spot on the roster, trading quarterback Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts on March 17. Philly got a 2020 third-round pick and a conditional 2022 second-round pick, which could turn into a first-rounder based on how much playing time Wentz gets in Indianapolis. They also got some clarity at quarterback, at least for the near future, with 2020 second-round pick Jalen Hurts getting the reins to the offense. The Eagles completed the overhaul of their QB room by signing Joe Flacco and trading for Gardner Minshew. The 12-year tenure of left tackle Jason Peters in Philadelphia, which included seven Pro Bowl appearances, ended at the end of 2020 after several injury-marred seasons. Peters became a free agent in March and the Eagles did not pursue his return; he eventually signed with the Bears in the middle of training camp. Philadelphia also moved on from receivers DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery, as both receivers were released early in the offseason. The team then used its first-round pick on Alabama wideout DeVonta Smith. TOP STORYLINES
Welcome Back Party - The Bucs hung 'Welcome Back' signs on the lockers of a number of key players to start the Wild Card week, but there are still a lot of question marks regarding who will be coming to the dance on Sunday. Inside linebacker Lavonte David and running backs Leonard Fournette and Giovani Bernard returned to practice Wednesday, which means they could be activated from injured reserve in time to face the Eagles, but that won't necessarily happen. Head Coach Bruce Arians seemed to be more optimistic about Fournette than David as the week began, and it's clear that both players have been sorely missed on their respective sides of the ball. Outside linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul have missed the last two and three games, respectively, but aren't on injured reserve. Arians expressed confidence in their ability to return to the lineup this weekend. In their absence, the Bucs had just three sacks over their last two games, including two by an ascending Anthony Nelson. Then there's the Buccaneers' secondary, which finally had all five of its anticipated Day One starters (including the slot corner position) available at the start of a game for the regular season finale...only to see Jamel Dean leave with a hamstring injury. Arians said he was concerned about Dean's availability for Sunday's game. How many of those players are able to suit up when it's all said and done on Sunday could make a big difference in how effective the Bucs are on both sides of the ball.
Hold Your Ground - Other than the continuing run of injuries, the other troubling trend for the Buccaneers as they begin their run at a second straight title is frequent holes in what had been an absolutely air-tight run defense for two-and-a-half seasons. In 37 games from the start of 2019 through Week Five of this season, the Buccaneers allowed seven opposing teams to crack 100 rushing yards; in the last 12 games of 2021, they allowed eight of their opponents to hit that mark, including five of the last seven. That trend actually started in Week Six when the Bucs' beat the Eagles in Philadelphia, as Miles Sanders and Jalen Hurts combined to produce exactly 100 rushing yards. Tampa Bay's defense actually handled Hurts' designed runs quite well for most of the game and Sanders had only one yard at halftime, but it was an emphasis on the ground game that allowed the Eagles to mount a second-half comeback and pull within six points. At one point this season, it looked as if the Buccaneers were on their way to finishing first in the NFL's rush defense rankings for the third time in a row. The Bucs did finish third on that list but were 15th in yards allowed per carry (4.30) and allowed seven of their last eight opponents a per-carry mark of 4.2 or better. The aforementioned possibility of returns by David, Barrett and Pierre-Paul could help quite a bit, but the Bucs' run defense has recently been trending in the wrong direction just as the Eagles bring the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack to town.
Home Cooking - The Buccaneers run to Super Bowl glory a year ago was historic and fascinating. By beating Kansas City, 31-9, in the final game of the 2020 season, the Bucs became the first team in league history to win a Super Bowl in its own home stadium. To get there, however, Tampa Bay had to string together road wins in Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay, a rare feat made at least a little less challenging by the thin crowds caused by COVID regulations. This year, playoff stadiums will be packed and while the eventual conference champions may have to go through Lambeau Field again, the Buccaneers know that is the only possible trip they'll be making in this postseason. The good news is that the Buccaneers get to start at home, and as the second seed in the NFC they will get a second contest at Raymond James Stadium if they can defeat the Eagles. While the Buccaneers played at home in Super Bowl LV and were designated as the "home team," last year's crowd for the Super Bowl was neither full nor dominated by Bucs fans. In essence, Sunday will mark the first time that the Bay area has had a chance to pack Raymond James Stadium with red-clad fans all the way to the rafters since 2007. After their 2020 championship season led to the return of sold out crowds at Raymond James Stadium, virtually all of the current Buccaneers got their first real taste of what a full-throated Tampa Bay crowd is like. That kind of backing could make a difference in Sunday's Wild Card contest, and maybe in the Divisional Round as well.
Winning Up Front - There will be a real strength-on-strength matchup in the trenches when the Buccaneers have the football on Sunday. Tampa Bay's offensive line sent three starters (LG Ali Marpet, C Ryan Jensen and RT Tristan Wirfs) to the Pro Bowl and allowed the fewest total sacks (23) and the lowest sacks-per-pass-play rate (3.15%) in the NFL in 2021. With injuries at the offensive skill positions and certain spots on defense piling up down the stretch, the Buccaneers leaned on their O-Line to lead the way as they won seven of their last eight contests. That group will need to continue its very high level of play if the Buccaneers want to have a shot at a second straight title, and they'll start the playoffs with a significant challenge from a loaded Eagles' front. Philadelphia's defense ranked second to last in sack percentage this year but that is misleading because it also finished third in quarterback pressures. Philadelphia has an imposing veteran front four of Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox in the middle and Josh Sweat and Derek Barnett on the edges, a quartet that made the Eagles the only team with four different players who recorded at least 40 pressures. And the Eagles get their pressure without sending extra men, blitzing at the third lowest rate in the league. That means there will be a lot of one-on-one battle of wills in front of Tom Brady on Sunday, and both teams will feel very confident in the men they're sending into those battles.
Familiar Ground for the GOAT - Tom Brady led the NFL with 43 touchdown passes in his age-44 season. Every other quarterback aged 44 or older in the history of the NFL has combined for 12 touchdown passes. As each season goes by, Brady keeps striding into previously undiscovered NFL territory. However, what Brady will do this Sunday - start a postseason game - is ground he has trod many, many times before. The Wild Card game against Philadelphia will be his 46th game and 46th start in the playoffs, obviously both all-time NFL records. His teams have a 34-11 record in the first 45 of those contests. Brady has now played 20 seasons in which he has started 12 or more games, and all but two of them have led to playoff berths for his team. In 15 of those 18 seasons, his team has played at least two postseason games. And, of course, he is the only player ever to play in 10 Super Bowls and win seven of them. At the end of his first season as a Buccaneer last January and February, Brady threw 10 touchdowns versus three interceptions in four playoff games and compiled a passer rating of 98.1. He followed that up with a league-leading and career-high 5,316 passing yards in 2021 to help his team get back in position to make a run at the Super Bowl. At this point, it's fair to wonder if Brady is destined to do something else he's never done before in the postseason this time around. One thing is for certain, it's going to be entertaining to watch as NFL history is made all over again.
1. Buccaneers RB Leonard Fournette (or Ke'Shawn Vaughn) vs. Eagles LB T.J. Edwards
On Monday, Bruce Arians agreed with the notion that the Bucs' stellar offensive line giving Tom Brady time to throw was the one aspect on offense in which he is most confident, but stressed that he wanted that passing game to be balanced by a strong rushing attack. In last year's four-game run to the Super Bowl title, the Buccaneers did indeed show more run-pass balance than they had during the regular season, and the results were spectacular. Leonard Fournette led the way with 448 yards from scrimmage and the Buccaneers are hoping he can take the lead again this January after he missed the last three games with a hamstring injury. Prior to his injury, Fournette was on a roll, and he finished the regular season with 1,266 yards from scrimmage (90.4 per game) and 10 total touchdowns. His versatile work in the passing game and his proven pass-protection skills make him the one back the Bucs' offense can most rely to stay on the field for all three downs. However, if Fournette is not cleared to play, Ke'Shawn Vaughn would take over as the lead back for the second week in a row. The Eagles' defense ranks sixth in the NFL with an average of just 4.00 yards per rush allowed, and T.J. Edwards led the way with 72 stops on running plays. After playing between 30-40% of the Eagles' defensive snaps through the first half of the season, Edwards saw his playing time increase significantly after the midseason release of veteran linebacker Eric Wilson. Edwards is now an every-down player and he finished the season strong with 30 tackles in the last two games combined. The Eagles were allowing 133 rushing yards per game before Edwards took over full-time at the MIKE position but have only surrendered 80 per game since.
2. Eagles QB Jalen Hurts vs. Buccaneers OLB Shaq Barrett
When the Buccaneers beat the Eagles in Week Six, they shut down every one of Philly's designed runs for Jalen Hurts in the first half. (Hurts would do more damage in the second half, but not enough to bring his team all the way back.) One of those stops was made by Barrett, whose gaudy sack numbers obscure the fact that he is an underrated run-stopper who is good at sealing off the edge. The Buccaneers' run defense has clearly missed that in recent weeks as opposing teams have very effectively attacked the edges on them and rolled up big rushing numbers. That was mostly accomplished with running backs but the challenge will be even greater this Sunday when the Bucs also have to try to keep Hurts contained while still trying to be as aggressive as possible in the pass rush. Barrett led the Buccaneers with 10.0 sacks despite missing the last two games and was chosen for his second Pro Bowl in three seasons in Tampa. As much as the Bucs obviously need Lavonte David back to shore up their run defense, Barrett's expected return should have a huge impact, as well. Hurts has had more designed runs than any other quarterback in the league this year and his rushing numbers are gaudy for a QB: 784 yards, 5.6 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns.
3. Buccaneers TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Eagles S Anthony Harris
Rob Gronkowski has bashed his way into the playoffs on a heater, catching 14 passes for 252 yards (18.0 yards per reception) and getting the full attention of his long-time buddy, Tom Brady. Brady and Gronkowski just happen to be the most prolific touchdown duo in NFL playoff history, hooking up for 14 postseason touchdowns, the most ever by a pair of teammates. Obviously, the Eagles are aware of these facts above and will surely be paying close attention to Gronkowski's movements around the field, but the long-established connection that he and Brady have allows them to find the weak spots in just about any defense. Notably, the Buccaneers did not have Gronkowski in the lineup when they played the Eagles in Philly in Week Six, but Brady still managed to complete a total of nine passes for 75 yards and a touchdown to the tight end duo of O.J. Howard and Cam Brate. The Eagles also had trouble in two games trying to shut down Dallas tight end Dalton Schultz, whose final totals (808 yards and eight touchdowns) were very similar to what Gronkowski accomplished (802 and six). Gronkowski won't get the same matchup every time but he certainly will encounter veteran safety Anthony Harris at times Sunday. Though he has just one interception and three passes defensed this season, his first with Philadelphia, he racked up nine picks and 24 PBUs over his final three seasons in Minnesota, enough to get him the franchise tag in 2020. The Eagles are likely to play a lot of two-deep safety coverages with Harris and McLeod, as they have for much of this season, and they emphasize preventing big plays. If Gronkowski tries to work down the middle of the field in that Cover Two look, it may be up to Harris to make sure he cuts off Brady's throwing lanes to his all-time favorite target.
4. Eagles WR DeVonta Smith vs. Buccaneers CB Carlton Davis
DeVonta Smith, the 10th overall pick in the 2021 draft, has had a fine rookie season, leading the Eagles in catches (64), receiving yards (916) and touchdown grabs (five). The Eagles' passing game hasn't produced a ton of big plays this season but Smith is the most likely one to get the ball downfield, as he has run 132 go routes and has been targeted on 20 of them. He has accounted for 38.6% of the Eagles' air yards on their completions, the fifth-highest share of his team's total for any player in the league. Smith has also been targeted near the boundaries more than most receivers. He has 19 targets, eight catches and three touchdowns on plays where he was within two yards of the sideline, all of which ranks in the top five in the NFL. Meanwhile, Davis has returned from a midseason stint on injured reserve to resume his role as the Bucs' top cornerback. He has recorded six passes defensed over the last six games and overall has 11 deflections in just 10 games played this season. Davis matches up well in terms of size with the slight Smith (6-0, 170), though the rookie's lack of bulk has never kept him from putting up huge numbers. Davis is outstanding in press coverage and may want to employ that tactic on Smith this Sunday. Smith has only caught 10 passes when facing press coverage this year, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and has averaged 1.1 yard per route against that tactic.
DNP: Did not participate in practice
LP: Limited participation in practice
FP: Full participation in practice
NL: Not listed
* OLB Shaquil Barrett (knee) - WEDS: LP; THURS: LP
* QB Tom Brady (rest) - WEDS: NL; THURS: DNP
* CB Jamel Dean (hamstring) - WEDS: LP; THURS: LP
* WR Mike Evans (hamstring) - WEDS: LP; THURS: FP
* WR Cyril Grayson (hamstring) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP
* C Ryan Jensen (shoulder) - WEDS: LP; THURS: LP
* RB Ronald Jones (ankle) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP
* DL Steve McLendon (rest) - WEDS: NL; THURS: DNP
* CB Sean Murphy-Bunting (hamstring) - WEDS: LP; THURS: LP
* OLB Anthony Nelson (ankle) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: LP
* WR Breshad Perriman (hip) - WEDS: LP; THURS: LP
* DL Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder/knee) - WEDS: LP; THURS: LP
* P Bradley Pinion (right hip) - WEDS: FP; THURS: FP
* CB Rashard Robinson (groin) - WEDS: LP; THURS: LP
* RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn (ribs) - WEDS: FP; THURS: FP
* WR Justin Watson (quadriceps) - WEDS: LP; THURS: LP
* LB Shaun Bradley (stinger) - WEDS: LP; THURS: LP
* DT Fletcher Cox (rest) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: FP
* G Landon Dickerson (thumb) - WEDS: LP; THURS: FP
* T Andre Dillard (knee) - WEDS: LP; THURS: LP
* G Nate Herbig (ankle) - WEDS: LP; THURS: LP
* QB Jalen Hurts (ankle) - WEDS: FP; THURS: FP
* T Lane Johnson (rest/knee) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: LP
* C Jason Kelce (rest) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: FP
* RB Miles Sanders (hand) - WEDS: LP; THURS: LP
* DE Josh Sweat (illness) - WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP
* CB Kary Vincent (foot) - WEDS: FP; THURS: FP
* WR Greg Ward (back) - WEDS: LP; THURS: FP
Windy with rain likely. High of 72, low of 51, 70% chance of rain, 80% humidity, winds out of the SW at 22 mph.
Head referee: Craig Wrolstad (19th season, 8th as referee)
BETTING LINE Favorite: Buccaneers (-8.5) Over/Under: 49.5 INDIVIDUAL STAT LEADERS
Buccaneers- Points Scored: K Ryan Succop, 131
Touchdowns: WR Mike Evans, 14
Passing Yards: QB Tom Brady, 5,316
Passer Rating: QB Tom Brady, 102.1
Rushing Yards: RB Leonard Fournette, 812
Receptions: WR Chris Godwin, 98
Receiving Yards: WR Chris Godwin, 1,103
Interceptions: S Mike Edwards, 3
Sacks: OLB Shaquil Barrett, 10.0
Tackles: LB Devin White, 128
Eagles- Points Scored: K Jake Elliott, 134
Touchdowns: QB Jalen Hurts, 10
Passing Yards: QB Jalen Hurts, 3,144
Passer Rating: QB Gardner Minshew, 104.8
Rushing Yards: QB Jalen Hurts, 784
Receptions: WR DeVonta Smith, 64
Receiving Yards: WR DeVonta Smith, 916
Interceptions: CB Darius Slay, 3
Sacks: DT Javon Hargrave/DE Josh Sweat, 7.5
Tackles: LB Alex Singleton, 130
TEAM STAT RANKINGS
Buccaneers- Scoring Offense: 2nd (30.1 ppg)
Total Offense: 2nd (405.9 ypg)
Passing Offense: 1st (307.6 ypg)
Rushing Offense: 26th (98.4 ypg)
First Downs Per Game: 2nd (23.8)
Third-Down Pct.: 2nd (47.1%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 1st (3.15%)
Red Zone TD Pct.: 2nd (66.2%)
Scoring Defense: 5th (20.8 ppg)
Total Defense: 13th (331.5 ypg)
Passing Defense: 21st (238.9 ypg)
Rushing Defense: 3rd (92.5 ypg)
First Downs Allowed Per Game: 17th (20.2)
Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 12th (38.5%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 12th (6.91%)
Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 10th (52.5%)
Turnover Margin: 6th (+10)
Eagles- Scoring Offense: 12th (26.1 ppg)
Total Offense: 14th (359.9 ypg)
Passing Offense: 25th (200.2 ypg)
Rushing Offense: 1st (159.7 ypg)
First Downs Per Game: 14th (20.7)
Third-Down Pct.: 4th (45.7%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 14th (6.28%)
Red Zone TD Pct.: 8th (62.3%)
Scoring Defense: 18th (22.6 ppg)
Total Defense: 10th (328.8 ypg)
Passing Defense: 11th (220.9 ypg)
Rushing Defense: 9th (107.9 ypg)
First Downs Allowed Per Game: 23rd (21.1)
Third-Down Pct. Allowed: t-23rd (42.9%)
Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 31st (4.92%)
Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 29th (66.7%)
Turnover Margin: t-16th (0)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR Leonard Fournette had the most prolific postseason by a running back in franchise history last January and February, including 300 yards on the ground and 448 total yards from scrimmage. That puts him in position to take over the team's career lead in those categories, as well. He needs 42 more rushing yards to pass Mike Alstott (341) in the former category and 55 more scrimmage yards to pass Alstott (502) in the latter category. In addition, nine more catches will give Fournette the all-time franchise postseason lead in that category, as well, as he has 18 and the record is 26 by Warrick Dunn. Fournette also scored four times in the Bucs' 2020 Super Bowl run, famously finding the end zone one team in each game. Alstott is also the Bucs' all-time leader in postseason touchdowns, so Fournette could tie him with a three-TD game on Sunday. The other Buc with a noteworthy streak in last year's playoffs was cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who became the first player in team annals to intercept a pass in three straight postseason games. That was actually enough to tie the Bucs' career record for postseason picks at three, sharing the mark with Donnie Abraham, Dexter Jackson and Dwight Smith. One more not only gives Murphy-Bunting the Bucs' record but also ties him with Duron Harmon and current teammate Richard Sherman for the most postseason interceptions among active players. There is currently a four-way tie for the most postseason touchdown catches in Buccaneers history between Mike Evans, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Keenan McCardell. That means either Evans or Gronkowski - or both! - could own the record by the end of Sunday's game. NOTABLY QUOTABLE Head Coach Bruce Arians on Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts: "Yeah, a great leader. Great leader - that's the one thing you heard everywhere he's been since high school. He's a fantastic leader and an unbelievable competitor, and that's what you want as your quarterback because people follow him. When you're an unbelievable competitor - and he's a workaholic, too, he's a gym-rat type of guy. There's so many good things about him, and he's throwing the ball, especially downfield, really well right now." Wide receiver Mike Evans on how he expects the Eagles' defense to defend him with some of Bucs' other top targets unavailable: "Oh, no matter who's in our lineup, I always have the most coverage for some reason, even though we have All-Pro guys and Hall of Fame guys out there. Somehow the attention goes towards me and that's fine. I like the gameplan this week. I'm in a lot of different spots and hopefully, I can make a huge impact." Defensive lineman Will Gholston on trying to slow down the Eagles' top-ranked rushing attack: "The keys for up front - like the interior defensive line - are we've got to make sure we stay in our gaps and change the line of scrimmage. With a dynamic offense like they've been having - No. 1 in almost all rushing categories - and to have a quarterback like that ... same as we played them in the beginning of the year, [Jalen Hurts] is dynamic, he is great and he does open it up for everybody. You've got to be able to stop the run and the Center Ryan Jensen on trying to establish a balanced offense in the playoffs like they did a year ago: "I think Lenny has been in the training room working his butt off and getting ready to get back, get healthy and come help us win some more playoff games. Obviously last year going into the playoffs we really established the run, and we played a pretty balanced style of football. I think getting back to the run game and doing what we're doing in the passing game is going to complement itself very well." Tight end Rob Gronkowski on what it means to him to have Tom Brady call him the greatest tight end of all time: "It makes me want to keep working. He said it before, but you have to keep working. That just makes me stay motivated because in order for me to be put in that category or even mentioned in that category, it takes a lot of work. It takes work every single week, every single day - mentally and physically. On top of it, you have to keep improving and finding ways to improve. In order to keep being mentioned in that category, especially from a player like Tom. I just have to find ways to keep improving every single week and just keep amping up my game every week in order to help out this team."