2020 NFL wild card preview: Buccaneers vs. Washington

While one team is looking to capitalize off their first playoff appearance since 2007, another team will still be thanking the football powers that be in regard to not only making the postseason, but also for hosting a game.

Although the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished the 2020 NFL regular season with an 11-5 record, the Tom Brady-led squad will have to trek north to face off against the 7-9 Washington Football Team at FedEx Field Saturday evening at 8:15 p.m. EST. 

Tampa Bay’s success came from their obvious elephant in the room in the former New England Patriot in Brady himself. In 16 games played, Brady was able to put together 4,633 passing yards and 40 passing touchdowns for a 102.2 overall quarterback rating. His 40 passing touchdowns were the most in a single season for the 43-year-old Michigan alum since he tallied 50 during the 2007 season. His 2020 quarterback rating, meanwhile, was his best since 2017 (102.8). 

Brady could not have put father time on hold, however, without a vast array of receiving options. Four players (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and Scott Miller) all picked up 500 receiving yards or more, with the first three collecting at least seven touchdowns each. Wide receiver Antonio Brown, a late-season acquisition, even tallied 483 receiving yards and four touchdowns in only eight games played. 

While everyone knew head coach Bruce Arians and Brady were going to constantly emphasize air raids and empty backfields, the running game, supported by a stout offensive line, helped Tampa Bay reach a new level offensively.

Ronald Jones II, despite missing several games, was able to rush for 978 yards and seven touchdowns, both career-highs. The offensive line, supplemented by rookie tackle Tristan Wirfs, allowed 22 sacks over the entire season, which was the fourth-least among all NFL teams (Pittsburgh with 14 and Green Bay and Indianapolis with 21 apiece). 

2020 for Tampa Bay’s defense has sung a similar, but slightly different tune when compared to its 2019 counterpart, as their front-seven, led by former LSU phenom Devin White, continued their terror on quarterbacks. The improvement on the defense, however, came from their defensive backs. After allowing 270.1 passing yards per game last season (third worst in the NFL), the unit, led by rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr., allowed 246.6 passing yards per game this season. 

Washington, meanwhile, will have to rely on their front-seven to cause enough chaos to the offensive line and Brady.

Quarterback Alex Smith (who leads all Washington quarterbacks with 1,582 passing yards and six touchdowns), running back Antonio Gibson (who leads the team with 795 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns) and wide receiver Terry McLaurin (who leads the team with 1,118 receiving yards) are all nursing injuries to varying degrees. However, hours before gametime, Washington announced Smith was inactive, prompting journeyman quarterback Taylor Heinicke to make the start.

Luckily for Washington, they have rookie Chase Young at their disposal. The 21-year-old defensive end recovered three fumbles (with a fumble recovered touchdown), collected 7.5 sacks, tallied 44 combined tackles and also nabbed 10 tackles for losses in 15 games played. Young will be pivotal on the edge, along with cornerback Kendall Fuller, who picked up four interceptions and 50 combined tackles in 14 games played.

Washington definitely brings a nasty (and youthful) defensive front, and the comeback of Smith is a story like no other, despite his absence. Even still, Tampa Bay is, and should be, a road favorite.

While Washington has kept opposing offenses to relatively minimal totals in terms of yardage (only twice has Washington allowed 400 or more total yards), Tampa Bay not only has the intangible postseason experience brought forth by Brady and the weapons surplus (even if Evans should not play due to a knee injury), but also resiliency. In nine games where Tampa Bay was held to 400 total yards or less, they went 5-4. Not elite, but good enough.

It will not be a slugfest by any means, and Washington will hang in there, but at the end of the evening, Tampa Bay’s depth on all sides of the ball will overwhelm Washington’s thinner roster. 

Prediction: Tampa Bay 27 – Washington 17 

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