Last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played their second home game on September 22, in Week Three of the 2019 season, and then didn't step foot in Raymond James Stadium again until November 10. That was built on a pair of two-game road swings, a "home" game played in London and a bye week, and it was perhaps the most unusual stretch in any of the Buccaneers' 44 season schedules.
Tampa Bay's 45th season schedule doesn't have any 49-day stretch like that on it, for which the team is obviously grateful. In fact, the longest stretch between Buccaneer home games in 2020 is 21 days, once in October and once from December into the new year. If the 2019 schedule was defined by that seemingly endless road trip, the 2020 schedule is most noteworthy for its five prime-time games, the most the Bucs have ever been scheduled for in a single season.
Some of those nationally-broadcast games, such as the Sunday-night matchup with the Saints in Week Nine double as the season's biggest challenges, at least as it appears now in May. As Team Reporter Casey Phillips, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I have run through a variety of schedule-related topics during this Roundtable Week, we've discussed the biggest offensive and defensive challenges and more. To finish the week, we're going to make our picks for the toughest stretch on that schedule.
Here's what we've covered this week:
Friday, May 15: What is the toughest stretch of games on this year's schedule?
We've rotated the order of our picks and stuck to a no-duplication rule all week, and in this one I have the honor of going first.
Scott Smith: Weeks 8-9
Since we really didn't define what we mean by "stretch," I could have taken Weeks 5-11 and covered the seven-week period in which the Buccaneers will play all five of those prime-time games, with three of them on the road. But that wouldn't be particularly sporting to Carmen and Casey picking after me, so I'm narrowing my focus down to what could be the pivotal point in the season.
In Week Seven, the Buccaneers will play a Sunday night game in Las Vegas, but at least they will have had a full week of preparation after taking on Green Bay at home the Sunday before. It's after that Vegas game when things get more challenging.
The Buccaneers will get home early on the morning of Monday, October 26 and begin preparing for a Monday night contest against the New York Giants on November 2. That does give the players one extra day of rest before that game, but it's also another one on the road, meaning more travel and another very long night heading into the morning of November 3.
I know the Giants don't look like the most imposing team on the Buccaneers' schedule after their 4-12 season in 2019, but rookie quarterback Daniel Jones showed definite improvement as the season progressed and in fact won his first NFL start in Tampa last September. The Giants also appear to have solidified their offensive line in front of Jones and they made some key additions on defense, including cornerback James Bradberry, who is very familiar with Tampa Bay's star receivers.
After returning home from that game, the Buccaneers will then have a short week to prepare for their Sunday night rematch with the Saints on November 8. That one is at least at home but surely ranks as one of the toughest opponents on the Bucs' schedule. The Saints won their third straight NFC South title last year and didn't have any serious defections while adding Emmanuel Sanders to complement Michael Thomas. If the Bucs can get through this two-week gauntlet of late-night travel, abbreviated rest and a critical intra-division game in good shape they will then face only two road games in the last six weeks, with a late bye week adding some much-needed rest.
Carmen Vitali: Weeks 3-5
What a team player. While back-to-back primetime games on the road is probably the toughest two-week stretch of the season, the Bucs will have to get through another tricky stretch before that period of time. This three-week span includes a trip out west (at elevation) as well as a Thursday Night game, which always presents a challenge.
If we're going off what the Bucs have typically done when crossing multiple time zones, it's safe to say the Bucs will be leaving to play the Denver Broncos in Week 3 a couple days early. Throw in the fact that Empower Field at 'Mile High' isn't just a name and now you've got to adjust to the altitude, too. Guys like outside linebacker Shaq Barrett used to play in Denver – he'll know what Tampa Bay is in for. But the Bucs as a team haven't visited the Broncos since 2012. That was Lavonte David's rookie year and he's the longest-tenured Buc on the roster. Playing a mile above sea level, which is a mile above what the team is used to in Florida, is going to put their conditioning to the test. You can bet Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Anthony Piroli will be working overtime to make sure the players are ready.
Following the game in Denver, which doesn't start until 4:25 ET, the Bucs will be in for a long journey home and likely won't arrive back in Tampa until the wee hours of Monday, September 28. They'll get mostly a full week of preparation before taking on their second AFC West opponent in a row at home for a 1 p.m. game. While the turf is familiar, the team is not. Plus, with all the turnover from last year, the Los Angeles Chargers won't be the easiest to prepare for, especially given that it's earlier in the season.
Once the Bucs get through that, though – then comes the dreaded Thursday Night game. Don't get me wrong, I love the primetime slot and am especially excited to play the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field during what should be some pretty awesome fall football weather… but I know preparing for a game in four days is no easy task. It gives the players less time to recover. It gives the coaches less time to devise and install their game plan. Plus, the team then has to travel to play. It means they'll be leaving Wednesday after just playing in a game on Sunday. And it's a mere 10 days after the team just got back from a cross-country trip to Denver. The only consolation with Thursday Night games is that the team then gets a 'mini-bye,' which will be much needed by that point, especially given that their actual bye isn't until Week 13.
View pictures of all the Buccaneers' 2020 opponents.
Casey Phillips: Weeks 11-12
Oh no big deal just facing the Super Bowl champions on a short week after facing another team who was in the Super Bowl within the last two years going into the bye week before the vital December games. Nothing to see here.
The saving grace of this stretch is that the Rams won't look exactly like the Rams we are used to. They will be without players like Todd Gurley, Clay Matthews, Eric Weddle, Brandin Cooks, Dante Fowler and even their kicker Greg "The Leg" Zuerlein. But that doesn't mean they won't still be a challenge on Monday Night Football. They added Cam Akers in the draft, who is capable of running, catching it out of the backfield, oh and he played quarterback in high school so they may even throw a few Taysom Hill pages in the playbook. Cooper Kupp will come into the year healthy; Robert Woods proved a reliable threat for Jared Goff. They've added Leonard Floyd who they hope can replace the edge rushing of Dante Fowler, brought back Michael Brockers, and as long as Aaron Donald is on a team their defense will scare me. And don't forget about Jalen Ramsey.
Then on a short week the Bucs have to face the defending champs. I already went into the Kansas City offense in my portion of the roundtable about toughest challenge for our defense so I won't go too crazy here. But Let's just say facing Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and Sammy Watkins on a short week isn't ideal. The Chiefs offense gets the majority of the attention, justifiably so, but their defense isn't anything to sneeze at either. Adding defensive end Frank Clark and all-pro safety Tyrann Mathieu was huge last year. Just this last week on Good Morning Football, Nate Burleson called the Chiefs the most dangerous defense in the AFC. He points out they were seventh in scoring defense last year and held teams to 19 points per game.
These are two big games, plus you know the team wants to go into a bye week and December with some momentum for a final playoff push. Between Monday Night Football and facing the defending champs, this will be a time when a lot of eyes will be on the Bucs to see how they are going to perform in the late season stretch that tends to separate the good from the great teams.