The moment is finally here. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers clinched their first postseason spot in 13 years two weeks ago but still had some work to get done in the regular season. Now the Buccaneers are actually in the playoffs, exactly where they planned to be after boldly signing Tom Brady in the offseason and making all the moves necessary to keep a rising defense intact.
The plan worked, but now that the Buccaneers are back in the dance the goal changes and the effort to secure the second Super Bowl championship in franchise history begins. Tampa Bay will have to navigate through a field of very talented NFC opponents to complete that journey, beginning with the Washington Football Team on Saturday night.
And, of course, that journey begins on the road, as the Buccaneers were not able to topple the New Orleans Saints as division champions. They did the next best thing, winning their last four games to secure the conference's top Wild Card spot and head into the playoffs with a full head of steam. The fifth seed also gave Tampa Bay an opening-round date with a sub-.500 NFC East champion, but the Bucs do not believe that is an 'easy draw' in any way, particularly with Comeback Player of the Year Alex Smith back in the lineup.
"We don't see them as a 7-9 team, we see them as a 4-1 team because every time Alex Smith has played, they went 4-1 and had a plus-three turnover margin," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "It's a different team when Alex is playing and we know that. We're playing that 4-1 team, not that 7-9 team."
Barring multiple wins by the NFC's Wild Card teams, the Buccaneers may have to stay on the road as long as it will take them in the playoffs. Unless Tampa Bay, Los Angeles and Chicago all win in the opening round, the Buccaneers would have to follow up a potential win in Washington with a trip to either Green Bay, New Orleans or Seattle. The good news is, the Buccaneers were a good road team in 2020, tying a franchise record with a 6-2 mark away from home, a road record bested only by the 7-1 Packers and Seahawks.
But a potential second destination is not on the Buccaneers' mind this week. The are intensely focused on the task at hand, as they know there is no room for a stumble in any playoff round.
"We've got a big one [this] week; it all comes down to one game," said Brady. "Now that the regular season's over, it's about one football game. Who plays well, who executes when the pressure is on? To do anything now, you've got to earn it. That's what it comes down to: Who earns it, who puts the preparation in and who goes out and executes when the pressure is on?"
Brady and the Buccaneers' offense will be preparing for a Washington defense that ranked second in the NFL and gave up the fourth-fewest points, just 20.6 per game. That crew comes into the game on a hot streak, having held seven straight opponents to 20 points or fewer. The Football Team's defensive calling card is its star-studded front line, which features four recent first-round picks, including newly-minted NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young. Washington has four players with five or more sacks and 46 QB takedowns as a team, ranking fourth in the NFL in sacks per pass play.
Of course, Brady's group is flying just as high heading into the postseason. During the Bucs' four-game winning streak – the longest one they've ever had to finish a regular season, the team averaged 37.0 points per game and outscored its opponents by an average of 18.3 points per game, both the best in the NFC in that span. Brady threw for a league-high 1,333 yards despite sitting out the second half of the Week 16 win at Detroit, with a 12-1 TD-INT ratio that tied Aaron Rodgers for the best in that span and a dazzling 126.9 passer rating. He did it by getting the ball to everyone in his deep arsenal of targets and making the opposing team defend every blade of grass.
"The guys are doing a great job making plays," said Brady. "Like I said, it's about what we're doing on offense. I've got to try to give those guys a chance and they're coming down with them. Chris [Godwin] comes down with them, makes incredible plays, A.B. (Antonio Brown) does, Mike [Evans] does, Scotty [Miller] does. We're just going to keep challenging different parts of the field and our guys are making a lot of great plays. We've got to keep it going."
The journey ahead is nothing new for Brady. Other than the 2008 campaign in which he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game, Brady hasn't missed the playoffs since 2002, which was coincidentally the season the Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII. All of that previous playoff glory – including a league-record six Super Bowl championships – came with the New England Patriots. Brady left the Patriots after 20 years seeking a new challenge in Tampa, and the Bucs welcomed him with open arms as the quarterback who could get the back to the postseason after 13 years.
And that's exactly what happened. Now the real work begins.
GAME AND BROADCAST DETAILS
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5, First Wild Card) at Washington Football Team (7-9, NFC East Champions)
Saturday, January 9, 8:15 p.m. ET
FedExField (capacity: 82,000…no fans will be in attendance)
TV Broadcast Team: Mike Tirico (play-by-play), Tony Dungy (analyst), Kathryn Tappen (reporter)
Radio: 98Rock (WXTB, 97.9 FM), Flagship Station
Radio Broadcast Team: Gene Deckerhoff (play-by-play), Dave Moore (analyst), T.J. Rives (reporter)
ALL-TIME HEAD-TO-HEAD SERIES
Prior to the 2018 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Football Team were dead even all time, not only in their 22 regular-season dates but also in the postseason. Then Tampa Bay and Washington squared off at Raymond James Stadium in Week 10 of that '18 campaign and the Football Team came away with a 16-3 win and a one-game edge in the head-to-head battle.
As far as the Buccaneers are concerned, Washington can have that lead (for one more year at least, they'll play each other in 2021), if Tampa Bay can take the lead in the playoff series on Saturday. That one is knotted at 1-1, with the Buccaneers winning in the 1999 NFC Divisional Round and Washington getting its revenge eight years later in the 2007 Wild Card round. Both of those games were played at Raymond James Stadium.
That 2018 game was memorable for the Buccaneers, but not in a particularly good way. Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bucs' offense racked up 501 yards and 29 first downs and averaged 7.5 yards per play…and scored just three points, as noted above. Fitzpatrick was picked off twice, the Bucs lost two fumbles and the offense incredibly went 0-5 in the red zone, with just one field goal. That's the only game in NFL history in which a team has gained 500-plus yards but scored three or fewer points.
Maybe that shouldn't have been a surprise. Weird things tend to happen when Tampa Bay and Washington get together. Weird things like a two-point conversion gamble winning a 2005 shootout against Washington when Mike Alstott willed the ball over the line for a 36-35 win. Or like the playoff rematch later that same year when Washington won, 17-10, despite being held to only 120 yards of offense.
There was also a 17-16 Tampa Bay win in Washington in 2010 in which Donovan McNabb rallied the home team with a fourth-and-goal touchdown pass to Santana Moss with nine seconds left only to see the snap on the extra point go through the holder's hands. Washington won a contest in Tampa, 24-22, after Connor Barth made fields of 50, 57 and 47 yards. The visiting kicker, Billy Cundiff, meanwhile, missed his first three field goals but then drilled a 41-yarder to win it at the end.
And, of course, there was the 2015 game in Washington that turned quarterback Kirk Cousins into a meme. The Buccaneers led that game, 24-20, before Cousins engineered an incredible comeback in a 31-30 Washington win, prompting him to repeatedly yell, "You like that?" in front of a camera in the corridor as he ran back to the locker room.
As for the Bucs' biggest win in the series, it was that 1999 playoff game that looked for much of way like it was going to send 11-5 Tampa Bay and it's fantastic defense to an early exit. Then John Lynch shifted the momentum with a third-quarter interception and Warren Sapp came up with a huge sack and forced fumble against Brad Johnson. Both of those turnovers led to touchdowns in a 14-13 comeback win.
- Washington Senior Vice President of Player Development Doug Williams is a member of the Buccaneers' Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers drafted Williams with the 17th overall pick in the 1978 draft and in just his second season he led the team to its first playoff berth in just the fourth year of the franchise's existence. Williams played five seasons for the Buccaneers before heading to the USFL in 1983. He later returned to the Bucs organization in the front office 2004, serving five seasons as a personnel executive and one as the director of pro personnel in 2009.
- Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles spent most of his eight-year playing career with the Washington franchise. He made the team as an undrafted free agent in 1986 and was a full-time starter by his second season, helping Washington win Super Bowl XXII at the end of that campaign. After five seasons in Washington, Bowles left for San Francisco for one season and then returned to his original NFL home for two more campaigns before moving into coaching.
- Buccaneers Offensive Assistant Antwaan Randle El also played for Washington, playing 63 games with 48 starts for the franchise from 2006-09 between his two stints in Pittsburgh. Randle El caught 186 passes for 2,202 yards and eight touchdowns for the team and also ran 24 times for 120 yards.
- Buccaneers Defensive/Special Teams Assistant Cody Grimm is the son of Hall of Fame guard Russ Grimm, who spent his entire 11-year playing career with Washington.
- The last stop for Washington Special Teams Coordinator Nate Kaczor before he joined Washington in 2019 was Tampa. Kaczor held the same position for the Buccaneers from 2016-18 under Head Coach Dirk Koetter.
- Washington Director of Football Operations Paul Kelly was a member of Jon Gruden's staff with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2004-08, working as an assistant to the head coach.
- Washington RB Peyton Barber originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Buccaneers in 2016 and spent four seasons with the team before signing with Washington this past offseason. Barber became the full-time starter in his third season and opened 23 games over the 2018-19 campaigns. His Bucs tenure included 1,987 yards and 15 touchdowns on 551 carries.
- Anders Beutel, Washington's head equipment manager, worked in the Buccaneers' equipment department from 1997-2000.
- Washington Director of Pro Personnel Eric Stokes was Tampa Bay's director of college scouting in 2012 and 2013.
SENIOR COACHING STAFFS
- Tampa Bay:
- Head Coach Bruce Arians
- Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin
- Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles
- Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich
- Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong
- Head Coach Ron Rivera
- Offensive Coordinator Scott Turner
- Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio
- Special Teams Coordinator Nate Kaczor
KEY 2020 ROSTER ADDITIONS
- QB Tom Brady (UFA)
- WR Antonio Brown (FA)
- RB Leonard Fournette (FA)
- TE Rob Gronkowski (T-NE)
- T Joe Haeg (UFA)
- WR Tyler Johnson (5th-round draft pick)
- RB LeSean McCoy (FA)
- DT Steve McLendon (T-NYJ)
- K Ryan Succop (FA)
- RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn (3rd-round draft pick)
- S Antoine Winfield Jr. (2nd-round draft pick)
- T Tristan Wirfs (1st-round draft pick)
- Football Team
- QB Kyle Allen (T-CAR...currently on injured reserve)
- RB Peyton Barber (UFA)
- S Kamren Curl (7th-round draft pick)
- CB Ronald Darby (UFA)
- LB Thomas Davis (FA)
- RB Antonio Gibson (2nd-round draft pick)
- C Keith Ismael (5th-round draft pick)
- RB J.D. McKissic (FA)
- LB Kevin Pierre-Lewis (UFA)
- G Wes Schweitzer (UFA)
- TE Logan Thomas (UFA)
- DE Chase Young (1st-round draft pick)
ADDITIONAL 2020 CHANGES OF NOTE
• Though it is noted in the "Roster Additions" section above, it's worth further elaborating on the extremely dramatic change the Buccaneers made at the game's most important position. After five seasons, the team moved on from Jameis Winston, the first-overall pick in the 2015 draft, and filled the starting quarterback spot with the man many consider the G.O.A.T., former Patriot Tom Brady. Brady brings 20 years of experience and six Super Bowl championship rings to Tampa in one of the most notable free agent signings in NFL history. Brady's move to the Buccaneers also prompted former Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement and he was promptly traded to Tampa Bay for a fourth-round draft pick. Another former teammate of Brady's, albeit for just one game, arrived in late October when the Buccaneers signed WR Antonio Brown.
• Tampa Bay debuted new uniforms in Week One in New Orleans. The uniforms are largely inspired by the ones the team wore during its Super Bowl era and overall from 1997 through 2013. Some elements of the uniforms introduced in 2014 remain, such as the sharper, more detailed skull-and-crossed-swords logo and the larger flag on the helmet (though not as large as before). The uniforms debuting in 2020 also include an all-pewter version that is completely unique in team and NFL history and was worn for the first time in Denver in Week Three.
• The Buccaneers have two new additions to their coaching staff in 2020: Defensive/Special Teams Assistant Keith Tandy and Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach Cory Bichey. Tandy worked at the high school and college levels in 2019, the latter at his alma mater of West Virginia, but he begins his NFL coaching career with the same team that drafted him in 2012. Tandy spent six seasons in Tampa as a safety and special teams standout before finishing his playing career in Atlanta in 2018. Bichey comes to the Buccaneers from Mississippi State University, where he previously worked under current Buccaneers Head Strength & Conditioning Coach Anthony Piroli.
• The Buccaneers used their franchise tag during the 2020 offseason for the first time in eight years. That tag was employed to retain outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, who went from a rotational reserve in Denver to the NFL's 2019 sack leader after signing with the Bucs as an unrestricted free agent. Barrett's 19.5 sacks in his first year with the Buccaneers broke Warren Sapp's single-season franchise record and made him one of the team's top priorities in the offseason. Barrett and the Bucs were unable to reach agreement on a long-term deal during the 2020 offseason, in part due to the uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, so Barrett will play on the tag's one-year contract this fall.
• The Buccaneers lost one of their key defensive players in Week Five when third-year defensive lineman Vita Vea suffered a broken leg and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season. Vea recorded 2.0 sacks through the first five games and was a key member of the team's league-leading run defense.
• The team made a coaching change to start 2020, bringing in Head Coach Ron Rivera after firing Jay Gruden midway through the 2019 season and finishing the year with Bill Callahan. Rivera had held the head job in Carolina for the previous nine seasons, leading the Panthers to the playoffs four times. In introducing Rivera, team Owner Dan Snyder gave broad power to Rivera saying he wanted the team to have "one voice" and that to come from the head coach.
• The team also parted ways with Team President Bruce Allen after the 2019 season and in July they filled that spot with Jason Wright, making him the first black team president in NFL history. Wright leads the business divisions for Washington, including operations, finance, sales, and marketing. Washington also hired Rob Rogers as its new senior vice president of football administration.
• Early in July, Washington began a thorough review of its previous nickname, "Redskins," which eventually led to the franchise "retiring" the name and logo it had used since 1933. The organization adopted the name Washington Football Team on what is expected to be a temporary basis as a new nickname is decided upon.
• Rivera retained Special Teams Coordinator Ron Rivera but brought in two new coaches to lead the offense and defense. Rivera's first hire was Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio, who had been out of the league for two seasons after last serving as the Raiders' head coach. Rivera and Del Rio had not previously worked together but agreed on the idea of switching the Washington defense to a 4-3 base scheme. Rivera and Turner had worked together in Carolina in 2018 and 2019 along with Turner's father, Norv Turner.
• There was a change in the Football Team's quarterback depth chart in 2020, though not exactly a new addition. Veteran passer Alex Smith returned after nearly two grueling years of surgeries and recovery following a terrible leg injury in 2018. A potential Comeback Player of the Year, Smith saw his first action since 2018 in a relief performance in Week Five. He got his first start in Week 10 in a 30-27 loss to Detroit but has since started five more games and Washington has won all of them. Most recently he returned from another leg injury in Week 17 to lead Washington to the win they needed over Philadelphia to clinch the NFC East title.
• The Football Team also had another big change in its quarterback room in the form of a departure. Dwayne Haskins, the 15th-overall pick in the 2019 draft, was released at the beginning of Week 17 following ineffective play and some unfortunate decisions off the field.
The Road Home – By qualifying for the playoffs, the Buccaneers created an opportunity to do something no NFL team has done before: play the Super Bowl in its own home stadium. Super Bowl LV is scheduled for Sunday, February 7 at Raymond James Stadium and the Bucs would make history if they are involved that game. To get there, though, they will likely have to do a lot of work away from home, and that starts this weekend in Landover, Maryland. While Tampa Bay players and coaches are focused solely on this Saturday's contest against Washington, it's not hard for us to envision what a path back home could like for the Buccaneers. Like the 2010 Super Bowl Champion Packers, who had to stack together consecutive victories at Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago, the Buccaneers most likely would need three road wins to give Tom Brady his shot at a seventh ring and the franchise a shot at securing a piece of NFL history. Tampa Bay's road to Raymond James Stadium starts in Maryland and could go through some combination of Green Bay, New Orleans and Seattle. It's a daunting task that the Buccaneers will take just one game at a time, beginning Saturday.
Who's In and Who's Out? – While the Buccaneers have expressed optimism about Mike Evans' chance of playing after suffering a knee injury in Week 17, it is by no means a sure thing. Evans will surely push to play if he feels he can do so even at less than 100%, but the Buccaneers will have to consider how effective they think he can be and how well they think they're offense could fare against Washington's strong defense without him. Inside linebacker Devin White is not expected to come off the COVID list in time for Saturday's game but the team did get edge rusher Shaq Barrett back from that list during the week. The Bucs are also monitoring the progress of Carlton Davis as he tries to return from a groin injury that has sidelined him the last two weeks. Meanwhile, Washington is dealing with nagging injuries to its core offensive players as quarterback Alex Smith (calf), running back Antonio Gibson (toe) and wide receiver Terry McLaurin (ankle) all were held out of practice to start the week. It's likely that all three will play on Saturday, but the Football Team is concerned enough about Smith to be considering using a two-QB rotation in the game. Head Coach Ron Rivera has noted that he could use Taylor Heinicke to spell Smith at points during the game to allow the gimpy passer to give his calf a rest. Heinicke has just one career NFL start but did get into the Week 16 game at Carolina, completing 12 of 19 passes for 137 yards, one touchdown and no interception. He also ran three times for 22 yards and two first downs in that game and would stress the Bucs' defense with more of a mobile threat than Smith.
The Pressure Is On – The Buccaneers won 11 games in 2020 and in nearly all of those victories they provided Tom Brady with excellent protection. Tampa Bay was 10-2 this season when allowing two or fewer sacks and 1-3 when allowing three or more. Brady definitely contributed to the low sack totals along the way with the experience that lets him know when to get rid of the ball quickly or throw it away, but he also has had long stretches in which he's been able to fire away in a clean, long-lasting pocket. According to Football Outsiders, the Bucs had the third best pass protection in the NFL in 2020 with an adjusted sack rate of 4.3%. Now that line is about to encounter perhaps the most talented defensive front it has seen this season, one that features five former first-round picks, four from the last four years. It's a battle those blockers relish, and one that know they must win. Said guard Ali Marpet: "It's absolutely a challenge. Washington has a good defensive front. I think, as an offensive line we know – not just the playoffs but because we're playing a good defense – it's our job to step up and put it on our shoulders if we can."
The Big Stage – There was one notable thing about the Buccaneers' schedule following their bye week: All four remaining games kicked off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Tampa Bay ran the table on those four games, scoring 37 points per game and winning by an average margin of 18.3 points, as noted above. The Bucs also won their other three games that started in the early afternoon this year (two against Carolina, one against the Chargers), scoring an average of 38.3 points per outing in those contests. Tampa Bay went 3-2 in five games started in the late afternoon, including their signature 38-10 win over Green Bay in Week Six. That leaves four other games, all of which were played before national audiences in prime time on Thursday, Sunday and Monday evenings. Tampa Bay went 1-3 in those contests, the one victory being a narrow 25-23 escape against the Giants. Those games also included the Bucs' worst game of the year, a 38-3 Sunday night loss at home to New Orleans. It is a virtual certainty that Buccaneer players and coaches believe they have no particular problem with evening games and are not worried playing another one Saturday. It's also a virtual certainty that the top will be one of the top storylines leading up to kickoff and likely well into the NBC broadcast. All playoff games are played before a national audience, of course, so the lights will be bright no matter when and where Tampa Bay plays this postseason. For convenience purposes the Buccaneers probably would like to play another afternoon game or two, but they'll have to prove they can play their best ball at night first.
Sneaky Good? – The analysis of Saturday night's Wild Card matchup in Washington primarily focuses on how the Buccaneers' offense will handle the Football Team's strong and aggressive defense, and vice versa. Both teams, in fact, feature top-eight scoring defenses. On paper, the Buccaneers have a significant edge on offense, as they have scored 30.8 points per game to Washington's 20.9. The Football Team also ranked 30th in yards and 31st in yards per play during the regular season, suggesting it will have a hard time keeping up if the Bucs' offense breaks out against Washington's defense. However, the offensive cupboard is far from bare for the Football Team. Washington has a dynamic WR-RB-TE trio in Terry McLaurin, Antonio Gibson and Logan Thomas, and a very good pass-catching back in J.D. McKissic. Washington topped 350 yards in two of its last three games and had more than 270 passing yards in three of the last five. Said Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles: "They present a ton of problems. They also have McKissic as well and they have both Sims guys [WRs Cam and Steven] that play very well. McLaurin can run every route, he can run route trees very fast, he's very polished, he can do a lot of things. Thomas has become a very good tight in this league, working his way in from a quarterback. He throws it, he runs routes, he blocks well. And between Gibson and McKissic coming out of the backfield, both used to play wide receiver as well as run the ball, so they both present a lot of problems."
1. Buccaneers T Tristan Wirfs vs. Football Team DE Montez Sweat
Buccaneer veterans such as Lavonte David and Will Gholston have had to wait a long time for their first crack at the playoffs, but rookie tackle Tristan Wirfs is one-for-one so far in his career. Of course, Wirfs' own excellent performance is a big reason why Tampa Bay is headed back to the postseason. The Buccaneers traded up in the first round of the 2020 draft to ensure they could snag the former Iowa star with the 13th pick and immediately installed him at right tackle. While even the most talented rookie linemen can struggle in the early going, Wirfs has played at a Pro Bowl level from the first day to the end of the season. He never missed an offensive snap and was credited with allowing only one sack the entire season. Wirfs' quick feet, incredible athleticism and ability to adjust on the fly to stunts and blitzes make him a very valuable resource against the Football Team's loaded defensive front. Sweat, a first-round pick in 2019, led that group with 9.0 sacks and 20 quarterback hits and he set a career-high in the season finale with five quarterback pressures, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. The Football team will bring Sweat and fellow first-round monster Chase Young from both sides, but the Next Gen pre-snap location heat map shows Sweat more often on the left end of the team's line and Young more often on the right end. That means Sweat will get a lot of work against Wirfs on Saturday night. Sweat has a very quick first step and long strides that eat up the ground to the quarterback if he gets free. Wirfs will have to contend with Sweat's long arms, which he uses to push and pull blockers, often in combination moves. The right end of the Bucs' offensive line should be a great battle of two extremely talented and technically-sound players on Saturday night.
2. Football Team WR Terry McLaurin vs. Buccaneers CB Carlton Davis
The Buccaneers are hoping to get Davis back from a two-game absence due to a groin injury on Saturday and that would be helpful in the efforts to stop Washington's leading receiver, who finished 13th in the NFL with 1,118 receiving yards plus four touchdowns on 87 catches. That's an impressive feat for a former third-round pick only in his second NFL season, but McLaurin showed he could star at the NFL level from the very beginning of his career, which he began with a 125-yard, one-touchdown outing in the 2019 season opener. Like Davis, McLaurin is dealing with an injury, in his case an ankle sprain that sidelined him in Week 16 and has limited him in practice this week. Still, it's a good bet that both of these competitors will grit through their ailments and play on Saturday night. When they do, Davis will have to deal with McLaurin's sharp routes, his ability to beat press coverage and his impressive run-after-the-catch ability. He ranked sixth in the NFL with his 468 yards gained after the catch this season, and seven with an average of 5.38 YAC per reception. Meanwhile, McLaurin will have to deal with a defender who has developed into one of the NFL's best shut-down corners in his third season. Davis is extremely sticky in coverage and was able to finish tied for second in the NFL in passes defensed with 18 despite missing the last two games. Davis spends most of his time at left cornerback, on the right side of the offense, while McLaurin has more often lined up to the left side of the offense this year. However, he has still seen plenty of action on the right side, and in addition the Buccaneers could choose to have Davis shadow McLaurin as he has done against several top receivers in the last two seasons.
3. Buccaneers WR Antonio Brown vs. Football Team CB Ronald Darby
Brown joined the Buccaneers on October 27 and, as Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich noted on Wednesday, it was obviously going to take the veteran receiver a few games to get his legs under him to the point where he could be as dynamic with the football in his hands as he has been throughout his career. Brown has certainly found his groove now, with 266 yards and four touchdowns over the final three games of the season. After Mike Evans went out with a knee injury in the first quarter of last week's game, Brown moved to the 'X' spot usually occupied by the Bucs' top receiver and racked up 11 catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns. He's made several big plays on deep balls in the season's last month but has also been a favored target for Brady on quick hitters that allow him to pick up yards after the catch. Brown figures to be an integral part of the Bucs' passing attack under any circumstances on Saturday night but that would be even more true if Evans is sidelined or limited by his injury. Brown has taken more snaps split out to the right than the left, and that's where Darby spends almost all of his time. A second-round pick by Buffalo in 2015, Darby had a strong rookie campaign but struggled with injuries and inconsistency over three seasons in Philadelphia. Washington signed him to a one-year prove it deal as an unrestricted free agent after cutting Josh Norman and trading Quinton Dunbar, and Darby won the starting job opposite Kendall Fuller. Darby has responded with a bounce-back season, leading the team with 16 passes defensed and having to face a high number of targets as opposing teams look away from Fuller, who has four interceptions.
4. Football Team G Brandon Scherff vs. Buccaneers DT Ndamukong Suh
Scherff made the Pro Bowl this year for the fourth time in his six seasons and is now the anchor of a Washington line that no longer features star left tackle Trent Williams. This season started out poorly for Scherff, who had missed 13 games over the past two seasons due to various injuries, when he suffered a knee sprain in Week Two and landed on injured reserve. However, he returned as quickly as he possibly could, missing just three games, and since has been a force up front, as usual. The 6-5, 315-pound Scherff is particularly powerful in the run game, able to consistently move blockers and open up lanes. He also moves well on plays when he's asked to pull and can get secondary blocks downfield. Scherff was a tackle in college and it shows in his pass protection, in which he can anchor and lock in pass rushers with his hands, or find a free rusher and get in his way quickly. The Buccaneers have an interior lineman who can match Scherff's power and ability to move bodies in Suh, who is coming off an outstanding season in the middle of the Bucs' defense. Not only was Suh instrumental in keeping the Bucs' run defense at the very top of the NFL rankings, especially after the Week Five loss of Vita Vea to injured reserve, but he applied quite a bit of pressure on quarterbacks, as well. Suh finished the season with 6.0 sacks, his highest total in a season since 2015, and also had 19 quarterback hits, just one off Will Gholston's team-high total. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Suh has more QB pressures since the start of the 2019 season than all NFL interior linemen except Aaron Donald, Cam Heyward and Washington's Jonathan Allen.
DNP: Did not participate in practice
LP: Limited participation in practice
FP: Full participation in practice
NL: Not listed
- CB Carlton Davis (groin) – TUES: DNP; WEDS: LP; THURS: FP. Game Status: Questionable.
- WR Mike Evans (knee) – TUES: DNP; WEDS: DNP; THURS: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
- RB Ronald Jones (finger/quad) – TUES: FP; WEDS: FP; THURS: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- DL Jeremiah Ledbetter (calf) – TUES: DNP; WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP. Game Status: Out.
- RB LeSean McCoy (not injury related) – TUES: DNP; WEDS: FP; THURS: DNP. Game Status: Questionable.
- OLB Jason Pierre-Paul (knee) – TUES: DNP; WEDS: DNP; THURS: LP. Game Status: Not listed.
- DL Ndamukong Suh (not injury related) - TUES: NL; WEDS: NL; THURS: DNP. Game Status: Not listed.
- DT Jonathan Allen (not injury related) – TUES: DNP; WEDS: FP; THURS: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- LB Thomas Davis (knee) – TUES: DNP; WEDS: DNP; THURS: DNP. Game Status: Out.
- CB Kendall Fuller (knee) – TUES: DNP; WEDS: LP; THURS: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- RB Antonio Gibson (toe) – TUES: DNP; WEDS: LP; THURS: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
- WR Terry McLaurin (ankle) – TUES: DNP; WEDS: LP; THURS: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
- LB Kevin Pierre-Louis (ankle) – TUES: LP; WEDS: LP; THURS: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
- G Brandon Scherff (shoulder) – TUES: LP; WEDS: LP; THURS: FP. Game Status: Not listed.
- QB Alex Smith (calf) – TUES: DNP; WEDS: LP; THURS: LP. Game Status: Questionable.
Evening forecast: Clear skies, low of 24, 2% chance of rain, 57% humidity, winds out of the NNW at 4 mph.
Head referee: Scott Novak (7 seasons, 2 as referee)
· Favorite: Buccaneers (-7.5)
· Over/Under: 46.5
INDIVIDUAL STAT LEADERS
- Points Scored: K Ryan Succop, 136
- Touchdowns: WR Mike Evans, 13
- Passing Yards: QB Tom Brady, 4,633
- Passer Rating: QB Tom Brady, 102.2
- Rushing Yards: RB Ronald Jones, 978
- Receptions: WR Mike Evans, 70
- Receiving Yards: WR Mike Evans, 1,006
- Interceptions: CB Carlton Davis, 4
- Sacks: OLB Jason Pierre-Paul, 9.5
- Tackles: ILB Devin White, 140
- Points Scored: K Dustin Hopkins, 111
- Touchdowns: RB Antonio Gibson, 11
- Passing Yards: QB Alex Smith, 1,582
- Passer Rating: QB Kyle Allen, 99.3
- Rushing Yards: RB Antonio Gibson, 795
- Receptions: WR Terry McLaurin, 87
- Receiving Yards: WR Terry McLaurin, 1,118
- Interceptions: CB Kendall Fuller, 4
- Sacks: DE Montez Sweat, 9.0
- Tackles: LB Jon Bostic, 118
TEAM STAT RANKINGS
- Scoring Offense: 3rd (30.8 ppg)
- Total Offense: 7th (384.1 ypg)
- Passing Offense: 2nd (289.1 ypg)
- Rushing Offense: t-28th (94.9 ypg)
- First Downs Per Game: t-10th (22.8)
- Third-Down Pct.: 11th (43.5%)
- Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 2nd (3.51%)
- Red Zone TD Pct.: 7th (68.9%)
- Scoring Defense: 8th (22.2 ppg)
- Total Defense: 6th (327.1 ypg)
- Passing Defense: 21st (246.6 ypg)
- Rushing Defense: 1st (80.6 ypg)
- First Downs Allowed Per Game: 5th (19.9)
- Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 14th (40.0%)
- Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 7th (7.78%)
- Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 20th (62.8%)
- Turnover Margin: 6th (+8)
- Scoring Offense: 25th (20.9 ppg)
- Total Offense: 30th (317.3 ypg)
- Passing Offense: 25th (216.6 ypg)
- Rushing Offense: 26th (100.7 ypg)
- First Downs Per Game: t-26th (20.1)
- Third-Down Pct.: 23rd (39.1%)
- Sacks Per Pass Attempt Allowed: 26th (8.32%)
- Red Zone TD Pct.: 20th (57.5%)
- Scoring Defense: 4th (20.6 ppg)
- Total Defense: 2nd (304.6 ypg)
- Passing Defense: 2nd (191.8 ypg)
- Rushing Defense: t-13th (112.8 ypg)
- First Downs Allowed Per Game: 3rd (18.1)
- Third-Down Pct. Allowed: 6th (37.5%)
- Sacks Per Pass Attempt: 4th (8.88%)
- Red Zone TD Pct. Allowed: 4th (53.5%)
- Turnover Margin: t-23rd (-4)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
· TE Rob Gronkowski has already recorded an incredible 12 touchdown catches in his playoff career. That is tied with John Stallworth for the second most postseason scores in NFL history, so one more on Saturday would put Gronkowski alone in second place. He has a ways to go to catch the record, though, as Jerry Rice scored 22 times in the playoffs.
· Gronkowski has also recorded four 100-yard receiving games in the playoffs, tying Jordan Reed for the most by a tight end in league history. One more and Gronkowski will stand alone.
· Not to be outdone, WR Antonio Brown has five 100-yard receiving games in postseason play. If he gets another one on Saturday he will tie Julian Edelman and Michael Irvin for the second most by any player in league annals.
· DL Ndamukong Suh has 5.0 career postseason sacks. If he gets one more against Washington he will tie J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed for the second-most playoff sacks among active NFL players.
· Head Coach Bruce Arians on if he was ever concerned the offense would not fully start to click in time for the playoffs: "Not really. I just knew how close we were. We were getting better and better and closer and closer. After the Bye Week, a lot of things fell into place. Even heading into that we were getting better. I saw the gradual process – it was just going to be a matter of time."
· Inside linebacker Lavonte David on the excitement of his first postseason game but trying to treat it like a normal game: "Obviously, this can't be a normal game because it's sudden death, basically. If you lose, you're out. And if you win, you keep on moving forward. Our whole mindset is focus on us and forget about everything that happened the last 17 weeks. It's a new start. It doesn't matter [what] a team's record [is and] it doesn't matter how they got here. They're here, so they're going to give you their best and we should put our best out there. It's definitely going to be fun to be a part of – to feel the atmosphere, the intensity that being in the playoff brings. Definitely have to be able to focus on what we focus on and just try to end this thing with a victory Saturday night."
· Wide receiver Chris Godwin on if quarterback Tom Brady is showing an extra level of intensity and focus this week: "I guess we'll see as the week progresses. One thing about Tom – throughout the entire year, he's been the same guy every single day. That's something that you really respect. No matter if it's a preseason game, regular season game or a playoff game, he's going to come with the same intensity, same focus. When it comes to game day, he's going to be locked in and be that guy we all know and love. I don't expect to see anything different, just because his attention to detail is so high. I'm looking forward to getting out there and rolling with him."
· Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles on the Buccaneers who are getting their first shot at the playoffs: "It's been great for the guys that have been here for a while, like Lavonte [David], that hadn't gone to the playoffs [and are] going for the first time. I'm very happy for him and hope to continue that if we win the ballgame. For the young guys just getting here for the first time, [I'm] trying to make sure they relish and cherish the opportunity because a lot of guys have played their whole careers and haven't gone to the playoffs, so you've got to make the most of it."
· Quarterback Tom Brady on how comfortable he now feels in the offense as the playoffs arrive: "I'd say every week is getting a little bit better and a little bit more consistent [with] better communication. We're all understanding each other a little bit better each week. Football season is tough – there's a lot of things to coordinate, there's a lot of moving parts, different players and in and out, you're running different schemes. But I think we've just tried to not take the foot off the gas pedal [and] tried to understand each other a little bit better each week and try to put ourselves in a decent position. Any time you make the playoffs, it's a good feeling and it's a great opportunity to be playing this weekend. A privilege, I think, for all of us. I think we want to go make the most of it. Playoff football is pretty special to be a part of and I'll be excited to be out there Saturday night."