TAMPA, Fla. – Playing at nearly full strength for the first time this season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense stifled the Philadelphia Eagles, forcing three turnovers in a 31-15 wild-card playoff win at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.
With linebackers Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Lavonte David all returning from injuries, and starting cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting the lone defensive starter sitting, the defense recaptured its postseason form from a year ago when it became the difference-maker in taking down future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes.
“It felt like having your big brothers back out there with you,” cornerback Jamel Dean said of his injured teammates. “I felt like the energy was there that we’ve been missing the second half of the season, but it’s starting to come back. … It felt like we was getting our swag back.”
“The level of intensity that the defense came out with….it was just exceptional,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said.
They held the Eagles' top-rated rushing attack to just 95 yards on the ground, with 34 of those yards coming on a touchdown run by Boston Scott in the fourth quarter, the first of two late TDs by the Eagles.
Safeties Mike Edwards, Jordan Whitehead and Antoine Winfield Jr. set the tone, with Edwards notching nine tackles, an interception, a tackle for a loss and a pass defensed. Whitehead had six tackles and two tackles for a loss and Winfield added five tackles and a tackle for a loss. Winfield also sacked quarterback Jalen Hurts, who seldom attempted a deep pass even when getting a number of single-high safety looks.
On the other side of the ball -- starting his 46th career playoff game and playing without several key weapons in Chris Godwin, Cyril Grayson, Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones -- quarterback Tom Brady and the offense continued to roll despite losing All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs to an ankle injury on the opening possession.
In Wirfs' absence, Brady was sacked four times, but the offense went heavy on the ground and incorporated the league's quickest passes of the season, getting rid of the ball in 2.17 seconds per throw -- Brady's fastest since 2016, the year NFL Next Gen Stats began tracking the metric.
“It was tough conditions out there. It kind of favored more of a running game with the wind -- the way that kind of played a factor,” Brady said, referring to 18 mph winds that came through, although rain wasn’t a factor at kickoff the way it was feared to be earlier in the week. “We kind of found a way to kind of play well against a really good football team.”
Gronkowski added: “That’s the beauty of football. There’s games where were back there -- Tom has all day just launching passes and we’re catching 40 yards downfield and there’s games like this: their defense was not gonna let us throw anything deep down the field. The way they were playing their safeties and all that, it would have been tough to go deep. So that’s when the underneath game becomes reliable. I don’t think there’s anyone better than Tom Brady at playing that game -- dumping it down, dishing it off -- whatever it is, he’s been doing it his whole career, he’s been winning his whole career like that…”
Third-string running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn and third-down back Giovani Bernard, just activated from injured reserve, notched 1- and 2-yard touchdown runs respectively in the first half, with Gronkowski hauling in a 2-yard touchdown pass and wide receiver Mike Evans scoring on a 36-yard play in the third quarter. Evans finished with a Buccaneers postseason-record nine catches, on 10 targets, for 119 receiving yards.
Brady, whose postseason record improves to 35-11, advances to the divisional round for the 17th time in his career, six more times than any other starting quarterback, but it was just his fourth time doing so with a wild-card win.
His former team, the New England Patriots, whom the Bucs narrowly defeated 19-17 during the regular season, find themselves once again spectators to his quest for another championship after they suffered a stunning 47-17 road defeat to the Buffalo Bills on Saturday.
The Bucs will host the Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams or the Arizona Cardinals in the divisional round, depending on the outcome of the other two wild-card games in the NFC. The Bucs will host the highest remaining seed of the trio, and the Packers will host the lowest remaining seed.
The big question though, is how will they regroup if Wirfs can't go? Coach Bruce Arians said it's a sprain. Backup Josh Wells -- whose action all season has been serving as an extra tackle -- struggled filling in for Wirfs. Also, how much will center Ryan Jensen be affected by an ankle injury he suffered in the first quarter but continued to play through?
“Hopefully we can keep our offensive line intact because I think they’re the best in football,” Arians said. “Tristan especially. They’ll be working on that ankle nonstop. I think staying healthy, turnover free and taking the ball away – that’s a good recipe.”
Fournette, who led the league in scrimmage yards last postseason, could return next week, which would help alleviate the pressure on Brady.
“He tried to hit top speed a couple times and he could feel it,” Arians said. “Until he’s full speed, we’re not gonna use him.”