Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Setting Up the Home Stretch | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Bucs fans have questions about playoff matchups, Tom Brady's scrambling and more

S.S. Mailbag

There was a stretch this season, not long ago, during which I felt like I was riffing on Mike Evans in virtually every single 'S.S. Mailbag' intro. That's not inherently a bad thing – Evans does a lot of incredible things on the football field and for a while he seemed to be breaking some new record every week. But I may have overdone it a little bit, so for this week's intro I'm going to focus on a topic completely and utterly different from Mike Evans.

Chris Godwin.

There are plenty of reasons to be talking about Godwin right now, not the least of which is that he is the leading receiver in the NFL's top-ranked passing attack. In just the past two weeks he has caught 25 passes (!) for 248 yards, though the end zone has eluded him. With 92 grabs for 1,054 yards, Godwin is now up to second in the NFL in catches and fifth in yards, and if his per-catch average of 11.5 yards doesn't excite you, well, that's because he's doing all the 'grimy' work, to use a Bruce Arians term.

Godwin has produced 53 first downs, tied for fifth-most in the NFL, and that's just on catches. He's also run the ball four times this year and every one of them has resulted in a first down. He's clutch. In addition, a lot of the passes thrown to Godwin are quick-hitters that depend on him adding yards after the ball is in his hands. Godwin's 590 yards after the catch this season are second in the NFL, just a bit behind the 605 posted by the NFL's leading receiver, Rams wideout Cooper Kupp.

All of these things are great, and a healthy reminder of why the Buccaneers used the franchise tag on Godwin as part of their 'keep-the-band-together' initiative to shoot for a second straight Super Bowl win in 2021. Godwin's contract status in 2022 is sure to be one of the team's biggest storylines next offseason no matter what happens in the 2021 playoffs. But before any of that takes place, and the reason I bring this up, Godwin has a chance to make his mark in the Bucs' record books, and in a way that his good buddy Mike Evans may not be able to erase.

I'm talking about the Buccaneers' single-season receptions record. Mike Evans owns the franchise records for receptions, receiving yards, touchdown receptions, overall touchdowns, 100-yard games, 1,000-yard seasons and probably about another five things I'm forgetting. He also has the single-season receiving yards mark at 1,524 and four of the top five touchdown reception campaigns in Buc annals. Evans has crowded everyone else out of the room, and hopefully it ends up with him getting a bronze bust in Canton.

HOWEVER…the Buccaneers' single-season reception record still belongs to Keyshawn Johnson, who caught 106 passes in 2001 (and, amazingly, scored on only one of them). Nobody has really come close to challenging that mark since. Evans had 96 catches in 2016, his third season, but hasn't hit 90 again since. The way the Bucs' offense is currently structured, that isn't going to change anytime soon. Evans is playing at a Pro Bowl level in 2021 but isn't going to get anywhere near triple digits in receptions. That's not an insult.

Godwin, meanwhile, is at 92 catches with four games to go. He would only need to average four catches per game to get to 108 and break Johnson's record. Do YOU think Godwin can catch four passes per game over the next four weeks? I certainly do. I wouldn't be surprised if he hit double digits this Sunday night against New Orleans, and if he did he would become the first player in franchise history to record 10-plus catches in three straight games. Why not?

Dang, I just realized that I wrote a lot about Mike Evans again. That was not the goal. But I hope the message is clear: Chris Godwin is doing some amazing things this year, too.

And now on to your questions.

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.

Can you talk playoff matchups if they were to start today?

- @lc162 (via Instagram)

Sure! I would love to.

If the playoffs were to start today it would be the first time they ever started on a Thursday (I think) and some teams would have to make some hasty plane arrangements. So let's put it this way: If the current conference standings were to hold through the end of the season, who would be playing whom, and where?

In the NFC, the Green Bay Packers would have the top seed and thus would get the only bye in the conference based on the new seven-team format the NFL introduced last year. They would relax and watch the first weekend as the other six playoff teams in the conference put their seasons on the line.

The other three division-winning teams would all get home games in the opening round against the three Wild Card teams, with the second seed getting the seventh seed, the third seed getting the sixth seed and the fourth seed getting the fifth seed. The Buccaneers currently hold the second spot and thus would play host to the last team to make it in, the Washington Football Team. Wouldn't that be crazy? Last year, the Bucs were the top Wild Card team, the Football Team was the lowest-seeded division winner and thus Tampa Bay's long road journey to the Super Bowl began at Washington.

The 3-6 matchup would be Arizona, winners of the NFC West, against San Francisco, the second Wild Card team. The Cardinals have already beaten the 49ers twice this season, though San Francisco is picking up steam down the stretch.

The 4-5 matchup would be Dallas, winners of the NFC East, against the Rams, the top Wild Card team.

If the Buccaneers were to win their first game in the above scenario, they would be guaranteed another home game, and it would come against the highest-seeded team still alive. The Packers, as the top seed, get to play the lowest-seeded team left. That could be one of three teams. If Arizona beats San Francisco, they would come to Tampa for the Divisional Round. If Arizona loses, the winner of the Rams-Cowboys game would come to Tampa in Round Two.

The Buccaneers would only get a third home game in the NFC Championship round if Green Bay loses in the Divisional Round. If the Packers and Bucs both win in that round, Tampa Bay would go to Lambeau Field for the conference championship game for the second year in row.

How likely are these matchups to stand through Week 17? Well, if the Bucs run the table over the next four weeks, they'll be guaranteed at least the second seed. If they lose any of the last four games, things could be shaken up considerably. If Green Bay stumbles and the Bucs overtake the Packers and hold off the Cardinals, Tampa Bay could be playing precisely nobody in Round One. That would be nice.

The less predictable part is the second half of the Bucs' first-round matchup. For the sake of argument, let's say the Buccaneers do remain in the second spot in the conference through the end of the season and thus open the playoffs against the seventh seed. Who's going to be in that seventh spot is hardly an easy prediction right now. Washington currently owns it due to a tiebreaker but is one of five NFC teams all tied at 6-7. At this point, it would hardly be a surprise if any of those five teams came out on top – Washington, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Atlanta and New Orleans. Alternately, Washington could move up the standings and the Bucs could end up facing San Francisco.

In case you also wanted to know about the AFC, at the moment the first round bye would go to (of course) New England. The Patriots are one of three 9-4 teams in the conference but currently have the upper hand due to their 7-1 record against AFC teams. In the first round, Buffalo would play at Tennessee (that's a good one), Indianapolis would play at Kansas City and the L.A. Chargers would play at Baltimore.

We are on Evans watch now, how many yards left for his 1k yarfd season?

- @bucs_uk (via Instagram)

For anyone who is unaware, the reason we are on Mike Evans Watch is that he has a chance to extend a rather impressive NFL record he set last year. With 1,006 yards in 2020, Evans became the first player in NFL history to begin his career with seven consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons. He and Randy Moss – the player Evans grew up idolizing – were the only two to open their careers with six straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons, but Evans moved into a league of his own last year.

That record would become eight straight if Mike gets to 1,000 again this season, of course, and that would only strengthen his eventual Hall of Fame résumé. And guess what? He's probably going to get there! Barring injury, in fact, it looks like a near lock.

Teammate Chris Godwin is already there, going into quadruple digits last week and now sitting at 1,054. Evans is at 885 with four games to play. That means he only needs another 115, or 28.75 per game. That's child's play for Mike. His career average is 76.9 yards per game and his average this season is 68.1 per game. Evans has had at least 29 receiving yards in all but three games this season and he's had 99 and 91 in the last two games. Even without the extra 17th game this season, Evans would have needed to average just 38.33 yards per game to hit the mark, and he's done that in 10 of 13 outings so far, too.

I do have one minor concern. Two of the Bucs' four remaining games are against Carolina, and the Panthers currently own the NFL's top-ranked pass defense. Of course, Buffalo had that top spot a week ago and Tom Brady threw for 363 yards against it, so maybe that's not such a big deal. The Bucs also get to play the Jets, who have the 27th-best pass defense, and even this week's opponent, the Saints, is surprisingly down at number 18 in those rankings.

Do you think we will continue to see Tom add rushing yards as the season progeresses?

- @Thomas_thielemann (via Instagram)

Honestly, not really. Or to put it another way, I'm sure that isn't the plan.

It really is a shock when Brady takes off running, and I can usually hear someone near me in the press box saying, 'Get down!' Sometimes I can hear it really well because it's me saying it. And it's not just in the press box. After the game on Sunday, in which Brady ran a season-high seven times (two of those were kneel-downs) for a season-high 16 yards, Head Coach Bruce Arians was asked what goes through his mind when Brady starts to run out of the pocket.

"He doesn't like [to hear] it that much, but get your [butt] on the ground."

Arians used a little more colorful of a word than butt, but you get the point. Arians was also asked about Brady's most important run of the game, when he scrambled up the middle for three yards on third-and-two on first-quarter field goal drive. Brady wouldn't have gotten past the sticks if he had slid to avoid a hit, so he had to stay up and take a hard tackle from cornerback Taron Johnson. Arians' thoughts on Brady "sacrificing his body" for the first down:

"Yeah, that's enough of that."

Brady has already 26 times for 68 yards this season, or about twice a game for about five yards per game. That's already a lot more than the six total rushing yards he had in 2020, and it's the most he's had in any season since 2011, when he was 34 years old, not 44. I can't imagine a universe in which Arians is thinking to himself, we need to have Tom Brady run more often. Other than the sneaks for a touchdown or a first down, which Brady has always been really good at, you're not going to see any designed runs for him.

Of course, Arians can't do anything about it if Brady starts to scramble, but I just don't think you're going to see that very often over the next two months. It is fun when he runs because he is always so self-deprecating about his running ability in postgame press conferences. However, there are a couple of factors that make Brady scrambles unlikely, and we're not even talking about his age.

First, the Buccaneers' offensive line (plus guys like Rob Gronkowski and Leonard Fournette) have provided Brady with excellent pass protection this season. Even after allowing two sacks to the Bills last Sunday, the Buccaneers lead the NFL in lowest sacks allowed per pass play (3.02%). Brady has never been sacked more than three times in a game this season and he's gone through an entire contest without being dropped six times, including five of the last eight. Second, Brady is getting rid of the ball faster than ever, averaging 2.51 seconds from snap to release, his quickest mark in that category since NFL Next Gen Stats began tracking it in 2016.

Also, there aren't too many scramble opportunities for Brady because I think it take a very specific sort of opening for him to take off. Try to picture in your mind Brady's scrambles this year. When I do that, all I see is him going straight up the middle when it opens up wide. It may have happened, but I can't picture a scramble in which Brady goes around the outside and races to a first-down marker on the sideline, like a Russell Wilson or Patrick Mahomes. I think any time Brady gets flushed out of the pocket to the sides he's going to look for an open man or throw the ball away rather than try to win a footrace with opposing defenders.

So, no, I'm not expecting to see more rushing yards from Brady going forward. Frankly, I'm surprised he has as much as has so for.

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