Sun, 06 Dec 2020

Starting the Home Stretch | S.S. Mailbag

Buccaneers
20 Nov 2020, 18:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers This week, Bucs fans have questions about playoff seeding, the Rams dangerous defensive front and more Scott Smith

The 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 7-3 after 10 games, and all things considered, that's a pretty good place to be.

It's not as good as it could be, of course. Had the Buccaneers managed to split their season series with the New Orleans Saints, they would be in first place by a game-and-a-half and would be the favorites to win the NFC South. As it is, it's a bit of an uphill climb, but I'm not here to discourage you if you want to start dreaming of a long-awaited Tampa Bay return to the playoffs.

First of all, the history of 7-3 teams making successful playoff pushes is pretty encouraging. In the 30 seasons following the NFL's expansion of the playoff field to six teams in each conference (1990-2019), 118 teams hit the 10-game mark with a 7-3 record. Of those 118 teams, 99 went on to make the playoffs, or 83.9% of them.

And remember: The playoff field has now expanded to seven teams per conference. If there had been seven-team fields during those past 30 seasons, another nine of the 19 teams on this list would have made it in. That's honestly fewer than I expected - 16 of those 19 teams never got to 10 wins - but it still improves the overall numbers to 108 of 118, or 91.5%.

The average final regular-season record of those teams is 11-5, and if the Buccaneers can win four of their last six games and hit that average, they will almost certainly be in. Since 1990, only one team that finished 11-5 did not make the playoffs. (Don't bring this up around Tom Brady...it was the 2008 Patriots!)

Of those 118 teams with 7-3 starts, 101 of them finished with at least 10 wins. And of those 101 teams, 98 made the playoffs. Expand the field from six to seven teams per conference and it would be 100 out of 101, with the only exception being your very own 2010 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That was the "Race to 10" season with Raheem Morris, and while the Bucs hit their mark, so did the Packers and the Giants. The Packers won the head-to-head-to-head tiebreaker to get in, leaving the Bucs and Giants out in the cold, and then went on to win the Super Bowl from the six-seed. Had their been a seventh seed, the Bucs and Giants would have matched tiebreakers and New York would have won on a better record against common opponents.

Anyway, 100 out of 101 is pretty encouraging, and the Buccaneers only have to play .500 ball the rest of the way to get there. Obviously, they're aiming their sights much higher.

And if you don't believe me, how about we check out the updated playoff odds on Football Outsiders? You'll need to follow that link and read a bit if you want to know the FO methodology here, but it involves simulating the rest of the season 30,000 times and it does take into account developments such as Drew Brees getting hurt. Their projections give the Buccaneers a 94.4% chance of making the playoffs, which is second best in the NFC and fourth best in the NFL, behind Pittsburgh, Kansas City and New Orleans.

I'll take those odds. Now on to your questions for this week.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Scott,

Can you help me out with clarification of possible playoff scenarios? With the Saint holding the tie-breaker in head-to-head meetings, it's conceivable that the Buccaneers could finish the season 11-5, or even 12-4, and still be a wild card team - so could the Rams, or Seahawks. It's also conceivable, at this point, that the NFC East winner could win their Division with a losing record - 7-9, or even 6-10. Doesn't a division winner hold home field advantage over at wild card team, regardless of record? (That's why the Bucs missed the playoffs a number of years back... That's stupid, if it is still the case.) Can you imagine a warm weather team like the Bucs or Rams (with a 12-4 record) having to travel to Philly, or even New York in December for a playoff game against a 6-10, or 7-9 team? That would be SO unfair. After what happened two weeks ago, I certainly wouldn't look forward to that scenario against the Giants... Do I misunderstand the playoff seedings? What are your thoughts on it?

Thank you, as always,

Joel (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

No, Joel, I don't think you are misunderstanding the situation, other than the part about the Buccaneers missing the playoffs in some undetermined year. You're mostly talking about playoff seedings, not whether or not a team makes the playoffs. You could be talking about that 2010 situation I described in the intro, but that had nothing to do with division winners. In fact, that probably is what you are referencing, because the 7-9 Seahawks won the NFC West that year and made the playoffs while the Buccaneers and Giants had to go home with their 10-6 records.

But, again, these are two different arguments, which I will summarize:

1. Should a division title automatically grant a team a playoff berth, even if there are teams with better records that do not get in?

2. Once the playoff field is decided, should every division winner automatically get a home game in the first round even if there are wild card teams with better records?

These two things are argued every now and then when we get a weird division situation like the NFC West in 2010 or the putrid NFC East this year. It certainly can seem a little unfair for a sub-.500 team to get a shot in the playoffs while a team with 10 or 11 wins doesn't. However, I personally don't have a problem with this. I am of the opinion that if you have divisions, then winning your division should count. Otherwise, why have them. Just use 16-team conference standings every year and take the top however-many teams, like major league baseball before it split into divisions in 1969.

You seem mostly concerned with the second argument, Joel, so let's spend more time on that, particularly because this is an issue that gets brought up a lot more often and is argued more vehemently. I can't see the NFL ever getting away from divisions and a playoff berth for every division winner, but it is conceivable it could eventually go to reseeding playoff teams based solely on their record. So a 6-10 Eagles team might get in, but it's not going to be rewarded with a home team against an 11-5 wild card team. That change isn't coming this year, for sure, so you can resign yourself to the fact that this exact scenario has a very real chance of happening to the Buccaneers if they can't get first place back from the Saints.

Apply the reseeding principle to this year's NFC standings (as they are right now) and you would have Green Bay getting the lone first-round bye and then New Orleans playing host to Philadelphia, Tampa Bay playing host to Seattle and Arizona playing host to the Rams. Sending Philly to New Orleans certainly has a ring of justice to it, though I'm not sure the division-winning Cardinals should lose their home game to the Wild Card Bucs for just a slight difference in the overall standings.

The reason I just can't get too worked about this issue, though, is that it really isn't that frequent of a problem. In the 30 years since the NFL expanded to 12-team playoff fields, there have only been two division winners who won just seven games - Seattle in 2010 and Carolina in 2014. An NFC East team is likely to make that three this year. So is a little apparent unfairness once a decade really enough to shake up the system. I don't think the NFL thinks so. Heck, there have only been three eight-win and 12 nine-win teams that won a division in that three-decade span. So 17 division winners with nine or fewer wins out of a possible 216 division winners...doesn't really strike me as a problem worth fixing.

Now, of course, it's a little rawer when it hits close to home, and the Buccaneers could end up the equivalent of the 2010 Saints, who won a Wild Card at 11-5 but had to go to Seattle to face the 7-9 West champions. And Seattle won that game.

Every situation is different, though. The Seahawks rode a Marshawn Lynch Beast Quake to that win over the Saints. Joel, you seem to be most worried about the Bucs having to play in cold weather, but that doesn't particularly scare me, either. I don't think we can use that one game in the Meadowlands a few weeks ago to suggest that the Bucs won't be able to handle playing in the Northeast in January. If the Buccaneers are a clearly superior road team against whatever team wins the East, they should be able to take care of business regardless of the weather.

Here's what it boils down to me: If the Buccaneers end up in the situation you describe, having to go on the road as a Wild Card despite 11 or 12 wins because they lost a tiebreaker to the Saints, it will be because they didn't beat the Saints. The Saints would deserve that title based on the two head-to-head wins, and they would deserve the home field advantage that comes with it. The Buccaneers will not have earned the same advantage and will just have to do it the hard way. Hopefully Tampa Bay wins 13 games and makes this whole conversation moot.

Scott,

The Bucs have played two teams with really good defenses and they have struggled offensively against the Saints and the Bears. And now the Rams come to town with a Top 10 defense and the ability to dominate the line of scrimmage. Is the offensive line good enough to win games against teams with very good defenses or will the offense sputter again in a nationally televised game with the run game shut down and Tom Brady under duress the entire night. After watching what Troy Hendrickson and Khalil Mack did to the Bucs O-line some of the Bucs faithful are really worried with Aaron Donald coming to Tampa.

James Taylor, Honolulu, HI (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

It's a valid concern, James, but I think less because of what happened against Chicago and New Orleans and more because the Rams are just that good on defense.

Statistically, this is the toughest defense the Buccaneers will face yet. Los Angeles ranks second in yards and points allowed, fourth in sacks per pass play and fifth in rushing yards allowed, and all things considered I'd rather face Khalil Mack or Trey Hendrickson than Aaron Donald.

New Orleans and Chicago aren't the only defensive challenges Tampa Bay's offensive line has faced this year. Technically, the Packers, Giants and Broncos all have better pass-rush numbers so far this season than Chicago does. The Giants, Packers and Raiders all have better run defense totals than Chicago, too. The Bears didn't shut down the Buccaneers running game; Ronald Jones had a 106 yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. And I really don't think they dominated the Bucs at the line of scrimmage; I think Khalil Mack just managed to beat our rookie right tackle a couple times. Give Mack credit; few pass rushers have had much luck against Wirfs so far.

What's encouraging is that the Buccaneers' offensive line is coming off a very nice performance in Charlotte. No, the Panthers don't have the same talented front that the Rams do, but it was still encouraging to see left tackle Donovan Smith have perhaps his best game of the year and to see that the line could handle the absence of left guard Ali Marpet with a Ryan Jensen-A.Q. Shipley combo in the middle. I think that group will come into Monday's game with a lot of confidence that they can win the battle up front.

I guess if you're a Buccaneers faithful and you're worried about this matchup, I would say to you, turn it around. Shouldn't the Rams' defense be concerned about a Buccaneers offense that is tied for sixth in scoring with nearly 30 points a game and has allowed the fourth-lowest sacks-per-pass-play rate? An offense that is captained by one Tom Brady? A passing attack that makes it hard to key on one or two potential targets because it can put so many hard-to-defend receivers and tight ends on the field at the same time?

The Rams are very good, particularly on defense. But just two weeks ago they lost to the Dolphins and a rookie quarterback, 28-17. Yes, non-offensive touchdowns had a lot to do with that but Tua Tagovailoa was only sacked once and he threw one touchdown pass against no interceptions. That's not to suggest that just because the Dolphins did it the Buccaneers definitely will, too. It's just to show that even though the Rams' defense is for real, they can be beat. And yes, the Rams know that the Bucs have a very good offense but surely believe they can beat it, too.

More often than not this year, the Buccaneers have handled the opposing pass rush very well. I think the Saints game in Week Nine was such an abject disaster that now we're afraid of the next disaster waiting around the corner, especially when the game is going to be played before a national prime-time audience. And it's possible that Aaron Donald will take over and wreck the Bucs' offensive front. But I don't think it's likely. I think the Bucs' offense will be able to do enough to give the team a chance to win.

After the Panthers game, what areas do you think need cleaned up before MNF?

- @isxrunner20 (via Instagram)

Well, given that the win in Carolina featured the largest positive yardage differential of any game in Buccaneers history (+357, 544 to 187) and marked the first time a Tampa Bay offense ever surpassed 300 net passing yards and 200 rushing yards in the same contest, this is a pleasantly difficult question to answer.

Whatever I write is going to sound a little like nit-picking, because the Bucs had 30 first downs, converted 10 of 16 third downs, committed only three penalties, made all of their field goals, only allowed one sack, scored on nine straight drives, never punted and controlled the clock for more than 36 game minutes. But sure, not everything was perfect.

For one thing, the Bucs seemed to have lost their mojo in the red zone. Just a couple weeks ago, the Buccaneers were riding a seemingly endless streak of success inside the 20 and in goal-to-go situations. Before the Week 10 New Orleans game, the Buccaneers were the only remaining team in the NFL that had scored on every one of its red zone possessions. At the same time, the team was an incredible 22-for-22 on scoring touchdowns after getting a goal-to-go, a season-opening streak not matched by any team in the league since at least 2000.

In the two games since, the Buccaneers have only scored touchdowns on four of nine red zone trips and have had four goal-to-go situations that didn't find the end zone. That's a start turnaround. They came up completely empty on a first-and-goal against the Saints. Whether it be mixing up the play-calling or getting the quarterback and his receivers on the same page on throws into the end zone, the Bucs need to get back to a high rate of efficiency in those areas. That could be extremely important on Monday night if two good defenses end up controlling the action.

Additionally, the Buccaneers need to get back to the fast starts that characterized the first month of the season for them. During the first five weeks of the season, Tampa Bay outscored its opponents in the first quarter by an overwhelming 48-14 margin. That has completely flipped over the last five weeks, with the opponents holding a 52-17 edge in the first quarter.

A few special teams miscues probably need to be cleaned up. A missed tackle on a 98-yard kickoff return and a blocked extra point didn't end up mattering in Carolina but could be the difference in a close game. And I'd like to see the defense find a way to generate a little more pressure early in games.

But again, that's a lot of nit-picking after such a dominant win. The Buccaneers will have to play very well once again to beat the Rams, but they aren't awash in glaring problems to worry about.

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