There are certain aspects of NFL football in general, and the Buccaneers specifically, on which we can all agree. Touchdowns are good. Doug Martin deserves a better nickname. Derrick Brooks is headed to the Hall of Fame. Those cannons at Raymond James Stadium are really loud.
Unfortunately, not everything is so cut-and-dried. Or perhaps we should say fortunately, because half the fun of following a sports team is debating the little things. Should we go for it on fourth-and-one at the 45? Should we draft a cornerback or a tackle? Is “Muscle Hamster” really that bad of a nickname?
With so many debatable topics, it’s time we get into the act here in the Captain’s Blog. Thus our new feature: Point/Counterpoint. We’ll pick a topic and two blog contributors will take opposite sides. In the discussion beneath the article, you can share your own thoughts on which side you support.
Today’s topic: What is the most difficult game left on the Bucs’ schedule as they chase a playoff spot?
I’ll give you first choice, Andrew.
Andrew Norton: Five games left, two of them against opponents with winning records, but I’m going to give my pick to the 5-6 New Orleans Saints, in a game the Buccaneers will be playing in the Superdome. One aspect: the Buccaneers will be coming off of two physical games versus Denver and Philadelphia rather than the bye that led into the first meeting with the Saints.
But the biggest challenge of this game will be that, like the first, it is all but guaranteed to be a shootout. In that game, both quarterbacks were on fire. Freeman put up 420 yards, Brees had 377. Vincent Jackson went a ridiculous 216 yards, four Saints caught touchdowns. The teams combined for seven passing TDs. The Bucs were unable to go into overtime by literally the length of one Vincent Jackson cleat (or one Creamsicle sock if you prefer the Mike Williams illegal touch play). Going blow-for-blow with the Saints will mean that the offensive proficiency will need to be matched across the board for the Bucs to come out on top.
Sitting at 6-5, the Bucs are in the thick of the wild card race and whether we go 2-0 or 1-1 in the next two contests, the showdown in New Orleans also holds the most playoff weight of any of the remaining games in my mind, adding yet another layer to the difficulty.
Scott Smith: That’s a compelling argument, Andrew, and yeah, that game in the Superdome should be a doozy. But help me out here: I’ve scoured your text several times and there’s one word I just can’t find.
You see, the Saints just don’t play it. (Crosses fingers that Jonathan Vilma doesn’t read the Captain’s Blog.) Do you realize that when San Francisco rolled up 375 yards in last week’s 31-21 victory (in the Superdome, I might add), it was the first time all season that an opponent had failed to cross 400 yards against New Orleans? I’m exaggerating for effect, and the Saints will surely tell you that yardage totals are misleading, but the fact remains that New Orleans is 32nd in the league in that category and 28th in points allowed. You’re right (don’t get too excited) – there is an excellent chance this game will be a shootout, but I have no doubt that Josh Freeman and company can hold their own in that battle.
Contrast that with the Buccaneers’ opponent this coming Sunday, the Denver Broncos. Denver’s offense is ranked fourth in the NFL in yards and third in points (that’s higher in both categories than Drew Brees’ crew, by the way), but the Bronco defense is also ranked fourth in the NFL. While Peyton Manning has clearly been Brees’ equal this season (and I’ll personally take Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker over Marques Colston and Lance Moore), the Saints don’t have anybody on defense as scary as Broncos LB Von Miller. We may be talking about the NFL Defensive Player of the Year here, and his pass-rushing buddy, Elvis Dumervil, is no slouch either. They have 22 sacks between them and will be quite a test for a Buccaneer line that has given up just 16 all season.
The other thing about the Denver Broncos that worries me is right there in the name: Denver. The Superdome can get loud, and a touch bizarre, but Denver’s home field advantage is legendary. There’s the altitude. There’s the possibility of cold weather (though the forecast currently looks pretty clear). And the Mile High fans are more than capable of creating a hostile environment for visitors. Denver has lost just once at home this year. The Saints have lost three games in the Superdome, including one to Kansas City.
Now, mind you, I’m not saying the Bucs will be unable to overcome all these factors. We’ve won three road games in a row, and this team has shown impressive mettle, especially for how young it is. It just seems to me that Tampa Bay will have to get a lot more right to top the Broncos than the Saints. The Bucs will have to slow down Miller, pressure Manning (never an easy task) and keep the top on Thomas and Decker with a very green group of cornerbacks. In New Orleans, they can either shut down Brees or simply out-gun him, and that seems like a far less complicated task.
If none of that convinces you, then perhaps you were swayed by my much more aggressive use of italics.
Care to rebut?
Andrew Norton: As intimidated as I currently am by your expert use of italics, parentheses and asides, I feel that I can safely counter this. You are correct that the Broncos defense is significantly better in all aspects than the Saints. Fourth in the NFL versus 32nd in the NFL is quite the stretch. But my argument against the Broncos is less about what they can do, and more about what the Bucs can do.
The Denver Broncos are the third highest scoring team in the NFL. The Buccaneers are the fourth. Denver has lost three games this season: against Atlanta, New England and Houston. The Texans are second in points per game, the Patriots are first. (The Falcons are no slouches themselves with 26.7 points per game.)
The Broncos have lost to every team that has put up more than 24 points against them. The Bucs have done that in six of their last seven games at an average of 31.7 points per game. Certainly you can argue that this is a case that correlation does not equal causation, but the main point here is that you cannot count out the Buccaneer offense no matter who they are facing.
Prior to the 251-yard running clinic conducted by Doug Martin against the Raiders, they were the 11th-ranked run defense in the NFL. The game before that he put up 200 all-purpose yards against the NFL’s 10th-ranked defense. Josh Freeman has 16 passing touchdowns since the bye week, nine coming against defenses ranked in the top 15.
The point that I’m drawing here is that the Broncos have struggled against teams that can put up points consistently. And after their 1-3 start, the Buccaneers have proven to be one of the most dynamic, high-scoring teams in the NFL. Certainly Denver is a difficult task. But for the Bucs, putting up 25+ is not. The Buccaneers have 21 TDs from scrimmage since their bye, tied for second in the league. And who are they tied with? The New Orleans Saints.
And while the New Orleans Saints defense is a cakewalk compared to Denver’s, I still find trading punches in a shootout as a much more difficult task. With teams trading point-for-point on every drive, missteps are amplified and every inch matters as was seen at the end of that aforementioned 95-yard reception by Jackson.
As you pointed out, the Buccaneers will “have to get a lot more right” against the Broncos, but against the Saints, it really comes down to getting just that one thing wrong.
Scott Smith: Well, I’m pleased that I am at least dominating punctuationally, but who knows if I can take the actual argument home?
But I’ll try. Let me see if I can summarize your point about the Broncos’ 2012 defense: It has allowed the most points to the best offenses it has faced. Okay, gotcha. And the corollary is, when they’ve allowed more points, they’ve been more likely to lose. Roger that, as well.
Listen, it’s good that you’re confident about the Bucs’ offense in any situation. I am too. I don’t think either of us is trying to argue why we think the team will lose in either Denver or New Orleans. But if the Bucs’ offense is good enough to still pile up points in the thin air against one of the NFL’s best defenses, what are they capable of in N’awlins? The Bucs’ offense will choke down Rocky Mountain oysters if it has to, but it will be ready to absolutely feast on some gumbo.
Even if I concede your point that “trading punches in a shootout” is a more difficult task than overcoming the Broncos’ defense and containing Manning, what makes you think a shootout is any less likely in Denver? The Broncos have scored more points than the Saints (barely, but still). Peyton Manning has just five fewer TD passes than Drew Brees (26 to 31), and he actually gets more yardage per throw (7.97) than does Brees (7.54). Manning has been WAY better on third downs than Brees (102.2 passer rating to Brees’ 85.9) and as a result Denver’s third-down conversion rate is a little better than New Orleans (44.1% to 43.5%). That, as I’m sure you know, has been the particular Achilles’ heel of the Bucs’ defense the last three weeks. Third downs are converted, drives are sustained, the offense gets fewer touches and it becomes harder and harder to keep up in that ol’ shootout.
We both want and expect the same thing: A five-game winning streak to close out the season and lock up a playoff spot. I maintain, however, that to get that done the most difficult task left – the most complete team the Bucs are going to face until the end – is waiting for them in Denver.
Let’s leave it at that. Next time, I’ll go first so that you can have the last word. You may want to italicize it.