This is the first meeting between the Bucs' defense and Patriots QB Tom Brady
When the Buccaneers and Patriots meet this Saturday, it will be a matchup of the only two teams to win the Super Bowl in the last four years.
Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden has it right when he calls that occurrence an "interesting sidebar" to the game. It is a "factoid," an attention-grabbing bon mot that, when the whistle blows Saturday, will have little to do with the action on the field, or the result.
After all, these teams didn't walk straight off the fields of their Super Bowl triumphs into one big mega-clash between champions. The Bucs have suffered through two losing seasons since earning their rings in 2002 – both seasons that ended in Patriots championships – and New England has been less dominant than usual this season thanks to an unholy string of injuries.
On the other hand, this is a 9-4 team visiting an 8-5 squad, and a matchup of two first-place teams, which can only be significant this deep into the season. These Bucs and Patriots may or may not be as strong or as destined as their previous championship editions – that will be discovered over the next seven weeks – but they are not exactly shells of their former selves. Both teams still possess perhaps the greatest strengths of their championship teams, so one could say this will be a Super Bowl-sized matchup between the great Tom Brady and the star-studded Buccaneers defense.
Injuries have hit the Patriots hardest on defense, where they rank 29th in the league and 31st against the pass. The offense, however, seems as strong as ever, ranking fifth in the NFL with an average of 363 yards per game. Brady, favorably thought of as all substance and grit and no flash, is suddenly ringing up numbers like a fantasy football star, throwing for 3,630 yards (roughly 270 per game) and 20 touchdowns. Sacked just 22 times, Brady has completed 63.4% of his passes and has a passer rating of 91.3.
This is the Bucs' first chance to oppose the two-time Super Bowl MVP; Tampa Bay and New England haven't met since 2000, when Brady was a little-known rookie, a year before the sideline hit on Drew Bledsoe that would open the door to history. It's a challenge the Bucs relish.
"There's nobody better," said Gruden. "His win-loss percentage is the most impressive thing. He's a magical player. He's at his best when he needs to be. We are looking forward to competing with him. We have tremendous respect for the Patriots, and certainly their quarterback."
The Patriots have moved the ball much more effectively through the air (second in the league) than on the ground (22nd) this year, in part because Brady is surrounded by dangerous weapons. The small-but-fast trio of Deion Branch, David Givens and Troy Brown have combined for 126 receptions and seven touchdowns, and those three receivers are balanced by three tight ends – Ben Watson, Daniel Graham and Christian Fauria – who are threats on any part of the field.
"They can line up all over the field and it makes them dangerous," said Gruden of the Patriot tight ends, who have eight touchdowns between them. "It makes them very hard to defend, because they can run it either way, they have a wicked play action passing game, and they do have great receivers. I think Deion Branch is highly underestimated in football."
The Patriots' injury-related struggles manifested into an up-and-down first two months of the season; New England alternated wins and losses through the first eight weeks of the season. But they've won four of their last five and could be hitting their stride at the right moment.
The same could be said of the Buccaneers, who have also won four of their last five and have recently shown tremendous offensive/defensive balance. The best example was last Sunday's enormous win in Carolina, in which an intensely motivated defense kept getting the ball back near midfield and a coldly efficient offense strung together clock-chewing scoring drives from there. There was talk of the imminent demise of the Bucs' proud defense when they allowed 27 or more points in three straight games in November, but more relevant is the 10 games this season in which they have allowed 16 or less.
The Panthers got a meaningless touchdown against a prevent defense on Sunday to make the final score 20-10, but the game might have been the best of the season for Tampa Bay's defense, currently ranked second in the league to Chicago. The circumstances were stacked against that unit – a raucous road crowd, the Panthers' usual fire when playing the Bucs, chilly temperatures, an early-game injury to defensive tackle Anthony McFarland – but they played like that legendary Super Bowl defense of 2002.
The Bucs probably need a similar performance on Saturday to complete a sweep of their three-game December road swing. Thus it was back to the film room and the chalkboard on Monday morning, as they look for ways to make their first meeting with Brady a good one. That's no easy task.
"You just don't have a lot of time to relish in your success or your failure," said Gruden. "This schedule we have is very challenging. We want to try to get together a good game plan for the Patriots. They have our attention obviously. And they'll be a very difficult task."