The Philadelphia Eagles had seemingly avoided the Super Bowl-loss hangover.
The team was scorching hot for the majority of the season and looked primed to recapture the NFC East crown. But an ugly finish cost the Eagles the division and the chance to host an NFL playoff game.
There were signs all season that Philadelphia wasn’t as good as its record. The Eagles won only three games all season by more than one score. One of those wins, however, was a 25-11 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3, a team the Eagles will be playing again in the first round of the playoffs.
A lot has changed for these teams since that game, and Baker Mayfield and his offensive cohorts will be out to prove that they have come a long way since the Eagles defense dominated them early in the year.
When the postseason comes around, there are any number of things that can decide a single game on Super Wild Card Weekend. But, when looking at these two teams, there are a few factors likely to have a huge impact on who wins.
Here are some of the key issues that will help decide who advances at Raymond James Stadium in Florida on Monday night (ABC/ESPN).
Can the Eagles Stop Their Slide?
On the surface, the Eagles (11-6) seem like a team that was among the elite in the NFL that crashed suddenly and started playing horribly.
A lot of the statistics don’t back that up, though. Offensively, the Eagles were 11th in the NFL in net passing yards per game and eighth in rushing yards per game during the team’s 10-1 start.
In the team’s 1-5 finish, Philadelphia was 13th in net passing yards per game and tied for 11th in rushing yards per game. The team’s third-down conversion rate has remained among the top five in the league. A definite drop, but not the dichotomy that you would assume with the drastically different records.
The biggest difference has been that the team sequenced its plays better. The Eagles were 18th in scrimmage yards per touch in the first 11 games, but somehow eighth in scrimmage yards per game. This was because the team was seventh in offensive touches.
The team has improved to 13th in scrimmage yards per touch during the last six games but is down to 14th in scrimmage yards per game due to the fact it’s down to 14th in offensive touches per game. Less plays mean less opportunities to rack up yards.
And the defense, which has not been good enough for the majority of the regular season, has splits in the same way on those stats. The defense was 24th in scrimmage yards allowed per touch in the first 11 games and 21st in scrimmage yards allowed per game. In the last six, the defense is 21st in scrimmage yards per touch, but 29th in scrimmage yards allowed per game.
It would be natural to assume the difference is because the defense can’t get off the field on third down, but that’s been a problem all season. In both the first 11 games and the last six, Philadelphia was 30th in the league in third-down conversion rate allowed.
And the offense was top five in the league in third-down conversion rate in both splits of games, so there wasn’t a stark difference there, either. Since the Eagles are likely trying to keep drives alive at all times, it’s likely that the team wasn’t as good as it started the season and isn’t as bad as it has looked lately.
That’s not to say there haven’t been any differences on a smaller level during the recent slide. Offensively, the biggest drop off has been the lack of explosive plays while throwing the ball.
The team was tied for sixth in the league in passing plays of 25 or more yards in its first 11 games. Since then, the Eagles have dropped to 30th. The big plays haven’t been there through the air, and it’s taken a toll on the team’s best offensive weapon.
A.J. Brown (knee) landed on the NFC wild-card injury report after he did not practice on Thursday and, if he does play, the Eagles will be hoping for more production than he’s had lately.
Through 11 games, Brown was averaging 95.5 receiving yards per game and had 13 total big receiving plays, ranking sixth and second in the NFL, respectively. Over the last six games, Brown is averaging 67.7 receiving yards per game and has just two total big receiving plays.
The Eagles have had a successful offense since Brown has been there due to a commitment to the run setting up explosive plays for the talented receiver. But he’s been bottled up lately, and the plays that completely flip the field or get the Eagles an easy touchdown just haven’t been there.
As the losing streak has continued, the team has also started committing more penalties. After being the fifth-least penalized team through 11 games, the Eagles have been the fifth-most penalized team in the last six.
Defensively, the team hasn’t been elite all season, but was able to get by with some timely turnovers early in the year. The team was 17th in turnovers forced through 11 games and that’s dropped to 30th in the last six. An inability to get off the field on third down coupled with an inability to take the ball away has spelled disaster for the unit during the recent slide.
Stoppable Force Meets Moveable Object
We’ve talked a lot about the Eagles, so let’s focus on the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay was the worst division winner by record (9-8) and point differential (plus-23) but did enough to win the tiebreaker in the standings over the New Orleans Saints and take the NFC South title.
The Buccaneers get by offensively by keeping drives alive on third-and-short and looking for the big play downfield when the opportunity presents itself. Tampa Bay was tied for third in the NFL in points scored outside the red zone.
When the Bucs get in the red zone, though, they’ve had a tough time capitalizing. Tampa Bay is 30th in red zone touchdown efficiency and 31st in offensive success rate. It’s not like Tampa Bay is a team that makes a ton of mistakes, either, as the team is ninth in turnover differential.
But without the threat of stretching the field, Tampa Bay hasn’t been able to find space for Rachaad White and the ground game or receivers like Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
Mayfield’s completion percentage inside the opponent’s 20-yard-line is just 50%, tied for 24th among qualifying quarterbacks. He’s also taken seven sacks in the red zone, one behind rookie Bryce Young of the Carolina Panthers for the most in the league. As a whole, the Bucs rank 31st in the league in pass success rate in the red zone (24.7%).
Worst Pass Success Rate in the Red Zone
- Tennessee Titans (22.2%)
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (24.7%)
- New York Jets (26.8%)
- Cleveland Browns (28.6%)
- New York Giants (28.6%)
The team’s lack of an efficient running game is a big culprit as well. The Buccaneers were dead last in the league at 3.44 yards per carry and 31st in yards per carry in the red zone at 1.95. White’s been a workhorse, but the lack of an efficient running game has made it really hard for the team to have any consistency in the red zone.
The good news for the Tampa Bay offense? The team they’re facing hasn’t stopped anyone in the red zone. Philadelphia is 30th in opponents’ red zone efficiency, 30th in offensive success rate allowed and 31st in opponents’ rushing average in the red zone.
It’s a bit surprising with all the talent at defensive tackle in Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter, but Philly just isn’t good against the run overall. However, it isn’t nearly as bad outside the red zone, ranking 20th in the league in yards per carry allowed overall.
Barring a catastrophe on offense, the Buccaneers are going to be able to move the ball some on the Eagles. Tampa Bay converts well on third-and-short and the Eagles can’t get off the field on third down.
The Buccaneers should move the ball down the field. The question becomes whether Tampa Bay can find some holes for White and take advantage of the Eagles poor rushing defense in the red zone. If the Buccaneers can be more efficient in the red zone, they have a chance to score a lot and put the pressure on the Eagles offense to counter.
The Inside Game
When the Eagles have the ball, the game will be about strength versus strength. And there is a whole lot of strength (literally) on the inside for both of these teams.
Vita Vea leads the Todd Bowles’ rushing defense that was fifth in yards allowed per game. Tampa Bay forces teams outside of where they want to go on inside rushes, and the talented linebacking core cleans up any mess after that.
That unit will face a challenge in the Eagles’ physical offensive line. Jason Kelce is still one of the best centers in the league and he’ll lead a unit that needs some positive rushing plays from D’Andre Swift on early downs to be successful in moving the ball.
Philadelphia gained 4 or more rushing yards on 50.8% of its plays on first down, which was the second-best rate in the league. On first-down passing plays, the Eagles only gained 4 or more yards on 48.5% of their plays, which was 27th in the league.
Philadelphia needs to have some success running the ball on early downs to set up some of the shots it hasn’t been converting lately. If the Buccaneers can stop the running game early in downs without devoting a ton of men in the box, it’ll be a huge win for a team that needs to keep its help on the outside.
If the Eagles are able to stay on schedule with early down runs, it’ll set up the sort of shots downfield they’ve been missing the last six weeks and will allow the team to sustain the drives they haven’t lately either.
Take Your Shots
The running game will help dictate how many shots the Eagles get downfield, but the shots themselves may be the biggest determining factor in how this game ends in the wild-card round.
We’ve been over the stark difference between the Eagles during the good and bad times. Philadelphia hit a lot of throws downfield when it was winning and hasn’t hit any when during its slump.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers have been really susceptible to the big passing play. Tampa Bay has allowed 65 passing plays of 20+ yards this season – the third most in the league. When the team’s average pass rush hasn’t pressured the quarterback, the secondary has been exposed deep quite frequently.
It’s not just Brown who was cashing in on long passes from Jalen Hurts during the 10-1 start to the year. DeVonta Smith had eight big receiving plays in the first 11 games, which was 25th in the NFL. Since then, he’s had just two.
Obviously, in any game, the number of big plays is crucial. One big offensive play can completely change the outcome. But it’s especially important in this game.
Tampa Bay’s kryptonite on defense is the big play. It’s really difficult to sustain several long drives against the Bucs’ talented and disciplined defensive front. But you can hit the home run against their defense.
And the Eagles have shown that they’re a much better team when they can hit that early deep ball, play from ahead and go with the positive game script head coach Nick Sirianni favors.
This wild-card matchup is going to come down to a lot of different factors. But one of the biggest is undoubtedly whether Brown and Smith can be the most explosive versions of themselves against an exploitable Tampa Bay defense.