January 13, 2022
After watching the playoffs from home in 2021, the Eagles are back in the postseason for the fourth time in the last five years. Only this time, it's not Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz leading the way — they're still not back in the playoffs, albeit for different reasons — but instead rookie head coach Nick Sirianni and second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts.
And while the playoff berth was both ahead of schedule and one that wouldn't have been possible in any other previous season thanks to the the NFL adding a third wild card spot, it has arrived nonetheless, with Sirianni and Hurts facing a tall task against Tom Brady, Bruce Arians and a Bucs team that already beat them once this year.
This, however, is a different team than the one that lost to the Bucs back in mid-October on Thursday Night Football. The defense has gone from a sieve to one of the better run stopping units in the NFL. And their pass defense, aided by facing some of the worst QBs the league has to offer, has turned its season around as well, although their toughest task in months awaits on Sunday.
But where the biggest change has taken place for the Eagles is on the offensive side of the ball, as they have transformed from a team that was allergic to the run — their running backs only carried the ball a grand total of nine times against Tampa in their Week 6 loss — to the top rushing team in the league, averaging 159.7 yards per game. This week, it will be strength on strength, as the Bucs boast the third best rushing defense in the NFL.
On the other side, the Bucs will also look a bit different, as they'll no longer have Antonio Brown or Chris Godwin, who combined for 14 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown in that last meeting, on the field against Philly. However, they will have Rob Gronkowski, who missed that last game with a rib injury.
How will all of that impact this game? Will the Birds be able to keep it close again? Will they actually pull off the upset? Here's a look at how our writers see Eagles vs. Bucs playing out on Sunday...
TV: FOX (Joe Buck and Troy Aikman)
RADIO: 94.1 WIP (Merrill Reese and Mike Quick)
The Bucs lost Chris Godwin for the season with a torn ACL, and I think we've all seen the Antonio Brown incident by now, which led to his release. Without Godwin and Brown, the Bucs' offense isn't quite as loaded as it was a few weeks ago, but they're still plenty capable of putting a lot of points on the scoreboard. They employ the best player in the history of the NFL in Tom Brady, an outstanding offensive line, a true star receiver in Mike Evans, a tight end in Rob Gronkowski who has played with Brady for a hundred years, and a solid rushing attack.
Defensively, they have disruptive players littered throughout their roster, Like Shaq Barrett, Devin White, Vita Vea, Antoine Winfield Jr., and if he's able to play on Sunday, Lavonte David. The reigning Super Bowl champs remain an extremely talented team, and one that went 7-1 at home in 2021.
The Eagles have the No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL, led by Jalen Hurts and a committee approach at running back. Assuming Nick Sirianni doesn't forget that, the Birds should at least be competitive in this game. But ultimately, at some point Hurts is going to have to make plays with his arm, which could prove to be difficult for quarterback with below average accuracy on a rainy, windy day.
This Eagles-Buccaneers matchup is one of those classic underdog situations where — if you think about it long enough — you can talk yourself into thinking the Eagles have a chance.
And of course, they do have a chance. But it's a very slim one. The Buccaneers are the better team. They will be hard for the Eagles to stop on offense. Philly has not faced a team this good (we are ignoring Week 18) in a very long time and it seems like a stretch for me to believe that they'll just be able to play football at a high enough level to knock off Tom Brady this weekend.
I think the Eagles offense is going to be able to put points on the board. But I don't think the defense will make enough stops to make that the deciding factor. I think the Eagles end this memorable season on a relatively good note, and Jalen Hurts will play well enough to avoid a QB controversy this offseason, allowing Howie Roseman to give him and the rest of the roster some reinforcements to contend in 2022. It's hard not to feel optimistic about this team with three first round picks, cap space and a returning roster with talent for next year. And that's how everyone should be feeling after Sunday, win or lose.
It's times like now that I'm really wishing the Eagles had one or two tough games on their schedule down the stretch — or played their starters against the Cowboys — just so we could have a better idea of how much better this team has gotten. Are they better than the version that lost to he Bucs earlier in the season? Of course. Are they good enough to hang with the defending champs for 60 minutes? Or, better yet, pull off the surprising upset on the road? We just don't know.
If the Eagles come out with yet another slow start, it might not matter, because this isn't Washington or the Giants, and a slow start against Tom Brady and the Bucs could end this game before it really even gets started. Despite no evidence to suggest otherwise aside from the Law of Averages, we're going to go out on a limb here and say the Eagles get out to one of their best starts in recent weeks, with the Bucs being the flat team, expecting to simply roll over the seventh-seeded Birds.
Call me crazy, but I think Jalen Hurts and the Eagles will get out to an early lead, perhaps even carrying that lead into halftime, before crashing back down to earth in the second half. Think of it like one of those first-round March Madness games where the upstart team hangs with Duke or Kansas for the first half and it looks like an upset is brewing, only for the final score to obscure that it was ever anything other than one-sided (save in this instance for a possible garbage-time score from the Birds). The Eagles season comes to an end on Sunday, unfortunately, but there is still plenty for Philly fans to feel happy about after this year.
Looking back on the Bucs loss earlier this season, that game was part of the blueprint for why I was and feel dubious about the Eagles as a playoff threat. The Bucs controlled that game, put the Eagles in a deep hole they couldn’t play out of, and the late rally only sort of papered over the fact that they couldn’t go step-for-step when an opposing quarterback is good enough to pick apart Philly’s secondary.
That said, a lot has changed in the time since the loss. Sirianni’s refusal to lean on the ground game more feels like ancient history, with the Eagles embracing their physical, line-centric identity and not asking as much out of Hurts as a thrower. It has made them a better football team, one that has proven capable of imposing their will on teams even while Hurts has frequently struggled to get going in first halves.
On that note — the second-half rally Hurts and the offense had against the Bucs in mid-October has been a theme of the season, rather than an empty-stats aberration you could have accused it of being in the moment. Standing across from the most decorated quarterback in the history of the sport, you need that sort of mental toughness and ability to adjust if you want to hang in against the reigning champs.
But I have to stick to my convictions here. The Eagles have not beaten a single good quarterback this year, which is a reflection of their inability to stop good QBs and the limitations of their own offense. Beating the Bucs would require for the Eagles to deliver an outlier performance of some sort, either against an all-time great QB or from their second-year QB starting his first playoff game. There’s no doubting the toughness of this group, and I think they’ll hang around in this one, but give me the heavy favorites.
How crazy this take may be: This is a statement game for the defending Super Bowl champions.
The poor, fledgling Eagles happen to be in their way in proving the point that they're still the team everyone in the NFC has to go through to get to the Super Bowl. Tom "Terrific" Brady doesn't forget. He will look and find any means to motivate himself, even if it's not there. Brady remembers what happened the last time he faced the Eagles in the postseason.
About 99.9% of that Eagles team is gone, however including the head coach. The Birds and coach Nick Sirianni are just happy to be here — as they should be. It was a great successful first step into a franchise transition period while still staying quasi-relevant.
The Eagles haven't beaten a team over .500 this season. What's that tell you? They're not that good.
Reality returns. The mirage is over. It ends here against the greatest of all-time (next to Muhammad Ali).
The Eagles are going to face their toughest test during this stretch run of victories. Playing great football against bad teams is either a false sense of playoff identity or tuning up at the right time. It’s hard to deny how hot the Eagles are, combined with how well their run offense looks. The only thing they can’t do is be drawn into a shootout, a pass-happy game led by Tom Brady.
That’s the concern that turned reality in the first half of the season, and while they’ve beaten up on bad QBs, they really haven’t faced a good one in a while. Brady and Bruce Arians are going to try and lure the Eagles into throwing, just to keep Jalen Hurts from running. The season will come down to just how well they play against Tampa — something I do think will happen. Unless the Eagles backdoor their way into a closer score, it will finish 42-30, Bucs.
The NFL, more than any other sport, is susceptible to paralysis by over-analysis for one simple reason: time. The scarcity of games in the league not only fuels demand and popularity, but it also gives people like me too much time to talk about every aspect of an upcoming game. And in the NFL you can talk yourself into things because every team has really good players and when you whittle down from 32 to 14 as is the case this season, that thesis resonates even more.
On Sunday in Tampa, the Eagles are up against it facing a better team, however. Perhaps Jason Kelce and Landon Dickerson can do a better job than most teams with Vita Vea or Lane Johnson and Jordan Mailata can make things difficult for Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. Maybe Darius Slay puts the punctuation of an All-Pro season by shutting down Mike Evans, Dallas Goedert highlights that the future at tight end is better than the standard at the tight end position for so many years in Rob Gronkowski and the Eagles' No. 1 ground game cracks 150.
Heck, it's even conceivable that the Eagles show up with their A-game and the Bucs are at a C, but how do you overcome 46 vs. 1?
Generally, it's cliched and obtuse to boil down an NFL game to the quarterbacks. But the best ever, Tampa's Tom Brady, will be starting playoff game No. 46 on Sunday and the Eagles' first-year starter, Jalen Hurts, will embark on No. 1.
Learning how to win in the postseason is a process and it's always good to kickstart it but picking anything other than Brady win No. 35 in the playoffs is wishful thinking.
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