The Tampa Bay Buccaneers climbed up to the second seed in the NFC playoff field in the 11th hour, and in improbable fashion.
First, the Buccaneers scored on a 33-yard touchdown catch by Cyril Grayson with 15 seconds left to stave off what looked like near-certain defeat to the struggling Jets in the Meadowlands in Week 17. I guess since that 93-yard game-winning drive was led by one Tom Brady, we might not be able to fully classify that 28-24 win as 'improbable,' but it sure seemed like defeat was at the Bucs' doorstep, and that would have essentially ended their dreams of getting the second seed.
Later that afternoon, Arizona won a 25-22 game at Dallas in Week 17 that was literally the Cardinals' only victory over the last five weeks of the regular season. A missed fumble call that couldn't be challenged prevented Dallas from getting one more shot at a comeback.
The Buccaneers then took care of business in Week 18 with a 41-17 win over Carolina, and as the players streamed into the postgame locker room they saw the Rams and 49ers battling it out in overtime. San Francisco had rallied from 17 points down to force overtime on a 14-yard Jauan Jennings touchdown catch with 26 seconds left in regulation. As the Bucs looked on, San Francisco started overtime with a field goal drive and then rookie corner Ambry Thomas secured the win with the very first interception of his NFL career.
This marks the fourth time in franchise history that the Buccaneers will start the playoffs as the second seeded team in the NFC, though of course that doesn't mean exactly what it used to mean. The first time was in 1979, when the Tampa Bay franchise made its playoff debut as the winners of the NFC Central. There were three divisions and two Wild Card spots back then, so each conference had five teams in the playoffs. The two Wild Card teams played each other in the first weekend, and the winner of that game played at the top-seeded division winner while the second-best division winner played host to the third. The Bucs enjoyed a weekend off before beating the Eagles at Tampa Stadium in the Divisional Round and falling to the Rams in the conference championship game, also at Tampa Stadium.
The NFL expanded its playoff field to six teams per conference in 1990, adding a third Wild Card team. The two division winners with the best records got first-round byes and guaranteed home games in the Divisional Round while the third division winner played the worst Wild Card team and the other two did battle at the home of the top Wild Card squad. The Buccaneers were the second seed in the 1999 playoffs, getting a bye, beating Washington in the Divisional Round and then losing at St. Louis in the Bert Emanuel Game.
This remained the playoff format until 2002, when the NFL added a 32nd team and realigned into four four-team divisions in each conference. Now there were technically four division winners and two Wild Card teams, but for the top two seeds the effect was the same: a week off and a Divisional Round home game. The Bucs immediately secured the NFC's second seed in the first year of this format, got a first-round bye, beat San Francisco in the Divisional Round and then had to go to Philadelphia because the Eagles had the top seed. Most readers already know that Ronde Barber pick-sixed the Bucs into Super Bowl and the Vet into demolition in that contest and then won Super Bowl XXXVII over Oakland.
So that was technically three different playoff formats in which the Bucs enjoyed a second seed, but they all produced a bye week. That is no longer the case as the Buccaneers prepare once again to begin a postseason journey from the second spot in the race. Last year, the NFL added a third Wild Card team to the previous format for a total of seven spots. That made it impossible to hand out two bye weeks – you need six of those seven teams to be playing in the first week to make it work – so the team that gets the second seed no longer enjoys a weekend off. That obviously makes the top seed even more valuable, and Green Bay had that locked up before the Packers took the field last Sunday.
Now the main advantage of the second seed is that, unlike the third and four seeds, it guarantees you a second home game if you win the first one. That's a pretty thin consolation prize compared to the old system, because either way the second seed is playing at home in the Divisional Round if it is playing at all. Previously, though, you didn't have to worry about actually getting to that round.
So is there an advantage in getting the top non-bye seed in terms of the matchups with the Wild Card teams. Presumably the fifth-seeded team presents more of a challenge than the six or seven and the six more than the seven, but that's somewhat in the eye of the beholder. One could make a pretty comfortable argument this year that the sixth-seeded 49ers, who won seven of their last nine, are a tougher out than the fifth-seeded Cardinals, who lost six of their last 10.
Moreover, history does not suggest that being the top-seeded team in the first round of the playoffs is anything close to a sure thing. We only have one season worth of evidence on #2 vs. #7 matchups, and last year both second-seeded teams (Buffalo and New Orleans) survived the opening round. So it's possible that being the second seed against the seventh seed is more of an advantage than being the third seed against the sixth seed, but it's hard to say that definitively at this point.
But we can say that #6 seeds more than held their own over the 30 years of the previous playoff format. In 60 three-six games from 1990-2019, the higher seed won 34 times and the lower seed won 26 times. That's pretty close to even! And sixth seeds were absolutely on a tear leading up to the most recent change in formats. From 2017-19, five of the six games played between the three and the six were won by the lower-seeded teams. Over a full decade (2010-19), the three and six seeds split 20 games straight down the middle.
The point is, you can't lose if you're on the bye, but you can – any team can – if it is in action on the first weekend of the playoffs, no matter what the seedings are. That's not pessimism, it's reality. Buccaneer coaches and players would be the first to tell you that the Eagles are more than capable of coming into Tampa and short-circuiting their title defense before it even begins, which is why they're working as hard as possible to make sure that doesn't happen.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Will Leonard Fournette be able to return this week against the Eagles?
- _koen.simmons_ (via Instagram)
That is one of the biggest stories we will be following all week and I honestly think we won't have a good feel for the answer until much closer to game time. I wish things were a little more certain.
We can start with this – Bruce Arians sounded an optimistic note to start the week. These were the very first words of his Monday press conference: "Leonard looks great. He's been working [well], and he should be back."
"Should be back" is an encouraging place from which to start but certainly not as good as "will be back." Fournette suffered a hamstring injury in Week 15 against New Orleans and was placed on injured reserve, which requires a stay of at least three games before a player can return to the active roster. The Buccaneers clearly knew that Fournette was not going to be available for any of their last three games or they would have kept him on the active roster. That means this is the earliest that he possibly could have returned, and we all know that hamstring injuries are a little tricky.
It was also good news that the Buccaneers designated Fournette to return to practice (along with Lavonte David and Gio Bernard) on Wednesday, the necessary next step towards all three coming off of injured reserve. However, we are still working with a lack of information here. The Buccaneers didn't really practice on Wednesday, holding a walk-through instead, so there wasn't any real opportunity to learn how Fournette's hamstring was holding up. Arians said as much on Wednesday afternoon. At the earliest, we'll have a better feel for Fournette's status on Thursday afternoon.
We do know that the Bucs could really use him on Sunday. Arians has already stated that Ronald Jones is doubtful to return, so the running game would be in the hands of Ke'Shawn Vaughn again if Fournette is unavailable, with Le'Veon Bell and maybe Bernard available to help out. Plus, this is 'Playoff Lenny' we're talking about now. Yeah, I know that nickname eventually morphed into 'Lombardi Lenny,' but alliteration aside I prefer the first one. Fournette wasn't just good in the Super Bowl, he was a powerful force in every single playoff game.
So we're basically in wait-and-see mode here, Keon. I don't think the Bucs are playing any kind of cat-and-mouse game with the Eagles. I think this is really a situation that could go either way.
How close is Richard Sherman to returning?
- _da_real_starbai (via Instagram)
I want to note at the top that this question was sent in on Tuesday afternoon before the Bucs put out word that Sherman was going to injured reserve. So don't blame the questioner, who is apparently the real starbai; it was a legitimate question at the time.
Obviously, this is as easy as a mailbag question can be, but I included it in order to explain one thing about this move: It is definitely season-ending for Sherman. Yes, players can now return from I.R. to the active roster after missing just three games, which would seem to hold out the possibility that, if the Bucs made it all the way to the Super Bowl, Sherman could come back. However, a player can only come back from injured reserve once in a season, and Sherman has already used his one time.
So his 2021 Buccaneers season will end with five games, three starts, 11 tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery. However, even if that isn't the playing time or stat line either side was hoping for, the September signing of the five-time Pro Bowler was still a big success in the estimation of Bruce Arians thanks to the experience and wisdom he has shared with the team's younger defensive backs.
"He's been a great addition," Arians enthused on Wednesday. "I told him the other day that I'm so happy we signed him because he's been an unbelievable addition to our football team."
What challenges will Philadelphia present this time around that they didn't in the first matchup?
- _jcrites53 (via Instagram)
The most obvious answer is an even more robust rushing attack. When the Eagles took on the Buccaneers in Week Six they came in averaging 116.4 yards per game on the ground, which is pretty good. If they had maintained that average through the end of the year they would have ranked 15th in the NFL, right between New Orleans and Kansas City. However, after hitting exactly 100 rushing yards against the Bucs, the Eagles would go on to average 185 rushing yards per game over their last 11 contests and finish as the NFL's top rushing team.
This was no accident. The Eagles were a pass-heavy team in the first half of the season under first-year Head Coach Nick Sirianni (something I looked at in more detail in this week's Scouting Report) but they pulled a 180 at that point and began running the ball a lot more, particularly on early downs. It made sense, really, and kudos to the Philadelphia coaching staff for figuring it out and being willing to change midstream. Not only do the Eagles boast one of the NFL's best offensive lines, including an outstanding tackle combination of Lane Johnson and Jordan Mailata, but they have the most prolific rushing quarterback in the league and a running back group that runs four strong with guys averaging around 4.5 yards per carry or better.
I expect the Eagles to try much harder to run the ball this Sunday than they did through the first three quarters of that Week Six game, not only because of the changes they have made but because of how differently the Bucs' defense looks three months later. In the five games the Bucs played before their Thursday night trip to Philly, their defense had allowed a miniscule 45.8 rushing yards per outing. They were easily first in the league in run defense after also finishing first in 2019 and 2020.
It definitely seemed as some of the Bucs' opponents were deciding that there was no point in running the ball and bashing their heads into a brick wall. The Patriots only tried eight runs in Week Four; the Dolphins only tried nine in Week Five. And then the Eagles seemed to be taking that approach to its hyper conclusion in Week Six, at least before halftime. Hurts had 20 yards on four designed runs and two scrambles but the Eagles made only one first-half handoff to a running back, to Miles Sanders for one yard. It was so glaring that the Eagles crowd actually let out a sarcastic cheer when Sanders got a carry on the second play of the third quarter.
But then in the fourth quarter the Eagles started handing off to Sanders frequently, even when they were still down by 14 points, and it worked. Sanders ripped off runs of 23, 14 and 11 yards and would end up with 56 yards on just nine carries. That may have been where the lightbulb went on for the Eagles. Whatever the reason, they've been running wild ever since. If the Eagles have just one handoff to a running back in the first half this Sunday, I'll eat my NFC South Champions Buccaneers hat, which I haven't even worn yet!
Relatedly, the Eagles did not have Lane Johnson for that game, as he was away from the team for a while tending to personal matters. Since his return, he has played magnificently.
After his performance against the Panthers, will Scotty Miller have a bigger role in the offense in the playoffs?
- bucs_uk (via Instagram)
I hate to be wishy-washy twice in the same mailbag but, uh…maybe?
Miller did look awfully good on those two end-arounds, including the 33-yard touchdown on which he really turned on the Jets and made some nice cuts to follow blocks. He caught a nine-yard pass as well, all within 14 snaps played. I can tell you from being there, the crowd really enjoyed those Scotty moments, which probably made them more enjoyable for him, as well.
But we should note that nine of Miller's 14 snaps came in the fourth quarter. His two handoffs came from Blaine Gabbert as the Bucs emptied out their bench after going up 31-17. That doesn't diminish Miller's efforts, as the Panthers kept their starting defense in the game. I'm just making a point about snap distribution.
Cyril Grayson left the game with a hamstring injury one minute into the second quarter, which obviously opened up a lot of extra snaps for other Bucs receivers since Grayson was likely to play 80-90% of them. Miller had no offensive snaps in the first quarter, two in the second and three in the third. It didn't appear as if Grayson's exit led to a bigger role for Miller; rather, Tyler Johnson ended up playing 87% of the snaps, up from 66% the week before, and Breshad Perriman played 62%, up from 15% the week before.
On the other hand, with it being pretty obvious that Grayson is going to miss the upcoming game and the team having a week to prepare a game plan without him, maybe the coaches will devise more of a package for Miller. When Grayson left the game, the Bucs lost the receiver they have come to use most often in run-blocking situations, a role he has somewhat inherited from Chris Godwin. Given their size difference, it's likely that the Buccaneers would rather use Johnson in that role than Miller. So I think we're still going to see a bigger dose of Johnson, but there's room for Scotty to get more involved, too. At the very least, Scotty certainly looks like he can be a weapon on surprise end-arounds.