The Eagles are the 7 seed. The game is in Tampa. The Buccaneers are the defending Super Bowl champions. The Eagles are 8.5 point underdogs. Tom Brady.
I don't think it's an overstatment to say not many people think the Eagles are going to win this game or even that it will be competitive. The Buccaneers have been one of the favorites in the NFC since last March and nothing has really changed since then.
Either way, Tampa is not perfect. There are ways that the Eagles could pull off the upset in this game, as crazy as that may sound. Here are some ways I conjured up after thinking on the opponent for a little. These are not in order.
Tampa Bay's Injury Situation
Maybe I shouldn't be starting with this, but as good as Tampa is, they are dealing with some major injuries right now. These are mostly related to the offense: Chris Godwin is out for the season, Leonard Fournette's status is in question with a hamstring injury and Mike Evans has been in and out with COVID/Injuries. WR Cyril Grayson, someone who has stepped in with everyone out for the Bucs is also dealing with a hamstring injury. This isn't even mentioning Lavonte David and Shaq Barrett on the defensive end dealing with separate injuries. It's worth noting that Fournette, Evans and Barrett are expected back for Sunday, but who knows if they will be 100% or not.
Jonathan Gannon Steps Up
Sure, this is a very broad header, but I believe it's a reality. Jonathan Gannon has definitely improved throughout the season, but this is different. It's Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time. I believe some of my fellow Eagles writers are going to dive into this more sometime this week, so I'll keep this short, but Gannon needs to make sure he realizes he's playing Brady and not Garrett Gilbert. If Brady has time in the pocket, he'll absolutely pick apart the Eagles secondary and linebackers like it's no contest. Gannon needs to have some unique sets on Brady to get the Front 4 onto the QB. Blitzing is an option, but probably isn't the best idea consistently against Brady.
Unfortunately I don't see the Eagles matching the scoring of the Buccaneers every possession, so they need to take the ball away from Brady and the Bucs offense. Obviously we know that Darius Slay is a guy who can pick off a ball and take it for 6, but some other position groups are going to have to help. I'm going to talk about the pass rush in a little, but if they could strip Brady or misdirect one of his throws it could go a long way for an Eagles win. Let's be realistic, the Buccaneers are going to drive down the field on this defense, so takeaways could be the only way to keep the Bucs from scoring a lot of the time. The Eagles had 16 takeaways this season, which ranked 27th in the NFL. This goes without saying, but the Eagles offense obviously can't turn the ball over either.
Pound The Rock
The Eagles are the #1 rushing offense in the NFL, and that cannot change on Sunday. We've already talked about keeping Brady off the field as much as you can, and burning some of that clock on long scoring drives sounds good to me. I'm not suggesting that I think the Eagles will move away from their run-heavy offense on Sunday, but if you are looking for a reason they can win it has to be establishing the run early. Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard and Boston Scott are all expected to be back and Kenny Gainwell has been a bit of a revelation down the stretch. Who knows how healthy Sanders will feel, but he needs to be prepared for a full workload on Sunday.
The Pass Rush Gets Home
It's really been the key the whole season, and it will be when push comes to shove. As good as the Eagles secondary has played this year, it won't matter if the Eagles defensive line doesn't get to the QB. Josh Sweat/Fletcher Cox/Javon Hargrave have been big down the stretch, but the rest of the guys need to step up somehow. I'm talking about Derek Barnett, Tarron Jackson, Ryan Kerrigan and Milton Williams. Maybe it's unfair to place that pressure on two rookies, but the Eagles have confidence in them so they'll be playing a lot. Brady can't run, but with time in the pocket he's unstoppable. We obviously saw in Super Bowl LII when the Eagles didn't get pressure all game against the Patriots until the end, which really was all that mattered . However, like I said earlier, I'm not sure this Eagles offense can go toe-to-toe with the Bucs offense so I don't think we'll be seeing a repeat of that. When these guys get 1on1 rushes, they have to win.
Bonus: Stop Gronkowski
I basically touched on this already but with Tampa's injured wide receiver core, Gronkowski will be even bigger of a target that he usually is. Although the Eagles linebacker core is improved, you have to be concerned about these un-experienced guys trying to guard one of the greatest Tight Ends in NFL history. Not to mention the Bucs also have two other good TEs in Cameron Brate and OJ Howard.
My prediction has changed throughout the week already, but I'm still finding it hard to pick against Brady in this game. The Eagles are a completely different team from when the Birds played Tampa in Week 6, but the Buccaneers are still more talented. I'll be back with you guys with another article later in the week, so maybe I'll give my prediction there. I'm not ready to go there yet.