We've been talking all week about how the Buccaneers are coming off their bye week as the NFC's sixth seed. They enter the final quarter of the season where they can either gain ground or lose it when it comes to their postseason hopes. And the first game in which they'll have an opportunity is a big one. Minnesota is currently the NFC's seventh seed and should wildcard seeding come down to tie breakers - this one is as head-to-head as it gets.
What it means is that the Bucs control their own destiny as of right now - which is exactly where you want to be. Below are a few players who could control the game for the Bucs, starting first and foremost with the man under center.
1. QB Tom Brady
Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady has never lost to the Minnesota Vikings, playing five games against the NFC Northers. They're one of four teams Brady has never lost to in his career (the others are the Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys and well, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). In those five games against the Vikings, Brady has an average passer rating of 108.0 and 1,311 passing yards with 10 passing touchdowns.
Coming off the bye this week, Brady said he's getting more and more comfortable with the Buccaneers offense as the weeks go on and is looking at the last four games of the season as an opportunity. His record in December would suggest the opportunity is a very good one. In his career, Brady has gone 63-16 in the month of December for an 80% win rate. Should this December yield similar results, the Bucs will be looking the postseason right in the face for the first time in over a decade.
2. DL Will Gholston
This might be asking you to pay a little bit more attention to the game than usual, considering the position Gholston plays isn't exactly a flashy nor glamorous one. But that doesn't mean it isn't absolutely crucial or that Gholston isn't playing out of his mind this year.
Quantifying his value against the run is tough – stats don't tell the whole story and Gholston has been an excellent run stopper under Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles the past two seasons. But what's different about this year is his stats against the pass. He has 17 quarterback hits so far this season. That's more than his last three seasons combined and bests his previous single-season high by nine. It also ties for the 10th most of any player in the league this year. Gholston is going extremely underappreciated this year and if you want proof – just watch him against the Vikings and their sixth-ranked rushing attack on Sunday.
3. S Antoine Winfield Jr.
This one is obvious. Winfield Jr. has Minnesota ties that run deep. Not only did he attend the University of Minnesota, but his father played nine years for the Minnesota Vikings. Some of Junior's strongest football memories center around the team coming to town this weekend.
"I was talking to my dad last night – we were watching film together – and I was like, 'Isn't it crazy that I'm playing against the Vikings?'" said Junior this week. "We laughed about it. I grew up a Vikings fan, watching my dad play up there. I've always loved the Vikings – I watched pretty much all of their games when I was growing up – so it's going to be a cool experience being able to play against one of my favorite teams."
You have to think the younger Winfield will be fired up to play his dad's former team and I'm thinking he's due for a big game as it is.
4. RB Ronald Jones
This week, Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich said the Buccaneers need to run the ball more consistently in order to call more play action, which has been an area Brady and the Bucs' offense have excelled in. In order to run the ball more consistently, Jones will have to be on the same page with his offensive line – who after the bye week should be fully healthy this weekend.
That could open up the run game, which in turn would open up the offense as a whole. We know Jones is capable after his 210-yard game against Carolina just a few weeks ago. There's also an opportunity against the Vikings, who are allowing an average of 121.0 yards on the ground this season. The Bucs are 4-1 this year when rushing for over 100 yards and haven't scored less than 31 points in those wins.
View historical photos from previous Minnesota Vikings vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers matchups.
5. ILB Lavonte David
Did you know David leads the league in hustle stops with 16 so far this season? That was actually something that was brought to my attention by fellow inside linebacker Devin White, who gave a thinly veiled jab at the same time by saying how impressive that is for someone of David's age. Those two.
But David will once again be instrumental, along with White, in the defense's efforts to contain the Vikings' lead back, Dalvin Cook, who is averaging 113.6 yards per game on the ground this year. The Bucs' defense is allowing an average of 74.2. So, who's going to win out? David will have a lot to say about that on Sunday.