Get ready for an upset, Philadelphia.
I know, I know. The Eagles are big underdogs on Wild Card weekend. Most experts don’t give Philadelphia much of a chance to walk into Tampa Bay and walk out with a victory over the defending champions. Plenty of fans are scared of Tom Brady.
Yet none of that will matter when 1 p.m. rolls around on January 16.
Here’s why my mind is made up, and why an upset is in the cards for the Eagles.
Health: The Eagles come into the playoffs as one of the healthier teams in the field. The same can’t be said for Tampa Bay. Perhaps Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Leonard Fournette will all play. But will they all have normal snap counts and workloads? We’ll see. Bucs head coach Bruce Arians was less committal about linebacker Lavonte David, a key to what was once a big-time run defense. Chris Godwin isn’t returning. Antonio Brown and Bruce Arians can’t unturn the key that opened the door to his exit. This Bucs team isn’t close to whole.
Tale of different seasons: If you had asked me to assess the Eagles chances against the Bucs, say, six weeks ago, I would have given you a different answer. But the season has changed, and Tampa Bay looks far less imposing now. Gone are Godwin and Brown, giving Tom Brady fewer trusted options in the passing game. And it’s impacted how the Bucs have played recently. We’re talking about a team that was shutout in a December game, and had to comeback from a two-touchdown deficit to the Jets. This isn’t a special Bucs team. The Eagles and Bucs both finished the season 7-3 in their last 10 games.
Buccaneers run defense has cratered: This is the key matchup, and it boggles my mind how many analysts continue to pit this as a “strength vs. strength” battle. Has anyone watched Tampa Bay’s defense over the last eight weeks? Through the first five games of the season, the Bucs were on pace to break the record for fewest rushing yards allowed. That followed up last year’s stout run defense on the way to a title. But things have changed.
In the last eight weeks, Tampa Bay has allowed 4.85 yards per rush. If that number was extrapolated over the full season, we’d be talking about the 31st ranked rush defense in the NFL. That figure includes getting gashed by explosive runs, an area the Bucs do rank toward the bottom (30th) in the NFL for the full season. Tampa misses David, especially with Devin White as one of the worst-graded run defenders in the league as the team’s other top linebacker. As the Eagles have morphed into the NFL’s top rushing offense, the Bucs have become one of the worst.
Jalen Hurts’ legs, and (likely) healthy ankle: The key to springing an upset in Tampa may have occurred two weeks ago, the day the Eagles clinched a playoff berth. Resting Hurts in Week 18 and getting his injured ankle close to 100 percent could unlock big things in this matchup. Tampa’s defense hasn’t just been bad vs. the run; it’s been abysmal vs. running quarterbacks. In the last eight weeks, the combination of Cam Newton, Sam Darnold, Taysom Hill, Josh Allen, Carson Wentz and Daniel Jones averaged 5.8 yards per carry vs. this defense, including over 100 yards from Allen in early December. Hurts is as good (if not better) of a runner than anyone in that group right now, and did have two touchdowns on the ground vs. Tampa in Week 6. Watch out for Hurts to break a few designed runs.
A rematch helps the Eagles more than it helps Tampa: Among the elements of this matchup that are different now than they were in October:
-Dallas Goedert didn’t play
-Lane Johnson didn’t play
-Andre Dillard was at left tackle
-Jordan Mailata, returning from injury, played right tackle
-Hurts was used almost exclusively out of shotgun, and the Eagles tries to throw the ball all game
-Eagles running backs only had nine carries
The game plan was brutal, but it at least gives Nick Siriannia and Jonathan Gannon as baseline to build off of now. I’d call a rematch a wash for Tampa, but advantage for a different-looking Eagles team.
Perception isn’t (totally) reality with the Eagles defense: Passive, no-blitz Gannon is going to get owned by Brady again, right? Perhaps. But the idea that the Eagles haven’t changed defensively in the last few months is false.
Gannon blitzed less than 15 percent of the time through Week 7, a bottom three figure in the NFL. Since? That number is close to 22 percent. This isn’t Jim Johnson 2.0, but a more aggressive coordinator has taken shape. The Eagles have also gone from playing almost exclusively zone defense to mixing things up, a key to possibly giving Brady some trouble. The Eagles don't allow explosive plays, and the Bucs offensive is designed to make them. On paper, Gannon's approach and theory could work well here. Add in an impressive late-season sack run by Josh Sweat, Fletcher Cox looking more spry as the year has gone on, and the emergence of T.J. Edwards at linebacker and it’s fair to say the Eagles defense today is better than it was in Week 6. It’ll be enough to keep Hurts and the offense in the game for four quarters.
Experience is overrated: Yes, Brady has as many postseason wins as all the other playoff quarterbacks combined in this field. Yes, the Bucs won it all last year and brought back all their starters from a title team. But let’s not pretend the entire Eagles team will be wide-eyed when the ball is kicked off on Sunday. There’s still a nucleus from the 2017 team here, and young players like Hurts, DeVonta Smith and Landon Dickerson have been playing on the biggest stages since they were 18 years old. I’d be surprised if the moment got to this Eagles group.