Bucs-Eagles preview | FOX Sports

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The Philadelphia Eagles were rolling at the start of December, looking like they were peaking at exactly the right time. And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked like they were barely clinging to their postseason lives.

Six weeks later, these teams have completely reversed roles as they head into their wild-card showdown on Monday night. The Buccaneers (9-8) are up. The Eagles (11-6) are down. The Eagles have lost five of their last six. The Bucs have won five of their last six.

And anyone who saw either of these teams six weeks ago wouldn’t even recognize them now.

So what can be expected when the fifth-seeded Eagles take on the fourth-seeded Bucs at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa? FOX Sports NFC South writer Greg Auman and NFC East writer Ralph Vacchiano break it all down:

Vacchiano: Greg, if you had told me a month ago about this matchup I would’ve told you the Eagles would win by 30. I probably wouldn’t have believed you if you told me the Eagles would be on the road either. I always knew the Eagles had flaws, but I still thought they were part of the NFL’s elite.

That’s not the case anymore.

If I were an Eagles fan, I’d be very worried right now, because they have the look of a one-and-done team. But I’m still not convinced that they’re not the better team in this matchup. I see the Bucs offense and defense rank in the bottom 10 of the NFL. I still have trouble believing in journeyman quarterback Baker Mayfield. And I’ve never been a big believer in Todd Bowles, though that probably stems from when I covered him coaching the New York Jets.

So I guess my first question for you is this: Why am I wrong about the Bucs? I know the Eagles are a really vulnerable team, but why is this Bucs team that was 4-7 not that long ago a team that can actually beat them?

Auman: If the right Bucs team shows up Monday, they can definitely beat the Eagles. Their entire season has been up-and-down though – great 3-1 start (with a home loss to Philadelphia as the only blemish), then losing six of seven, then winning four in a row, just enough to pull out a division title for a third straight year.

Where the Eagles are most vulnerable against the Bucs is the turnover game — in those last six games, Philadelphia has the worst turnover margin in the NFL, minus-8. The Bucs are a top-10 team in that department at plus-8 for the season. If they can get even two or three takeaways against the Eagles, it might close the gap between these two teams.

If they don’t, I think we saw in Week 4 that Philadelphia is capable of dominating this Bucs team. That game was 25-3 in the fourth quarter, and the Eagles looked like a team that could go back to the Super Bowl. What do you think has caused their freefall in the last six weeks?

Vacchiano: Oh, so many, many things.

I tend to blame the defense, which has been atrocious and plagued by injuries. They have a serious tackling issue and they’ve been unable to generate any kind of consistent pressure. Obviously, they think that’s a big problem too, which is why they demoted defensive coordinator Sean Desai in December and let Matt Patricia start calling defensive plays. That’s actually made things worse, which I guess makes sense considering he’s calling plays for a defense that isn’t his usual scheme.

But that’s been an issue for them all year long, really. They couldn’t tackle and had defensive injuries and inconsistent pressure when they were 10-1, but they were able to overcome that. Why? Because the offense was working. And Jalen Hurts was doing what Jalen Hurts does — finding a way to make the big play at the right time.

Starting in December, he stopped doing that. He’s thrown five touchdown passes and five interceptions in the last six games (and three of the touchdown passes came in one loss to the Arizona Cardinals). He’s thrown for less than 200 yards in four of those games. A.J. Brown, who was breaking records early in the year, has disappeared too.

Some of that is because the offensive line has struggled against blitzing teams. Some of it is because offensive coordinator Brian Johnson has made some curious play calls in big spots. But a lot of it is just because Hurts isn’t making plays anymore.

Obviously, down in Tampa, Baker Mayfield is making plenty of plays. When he landed there I assumed he was a stop-gap until they found a new QB. Why is he suddenly so good?

Jalen Hurts, Eagles set to face Baker Mayfield, Bucs in NFL playoffs

Jalen Hurts, Eagles set to face Baker Mayfield, Bucs in NFL playoffs

Auman: The Bucs have done a good job of playing to Mayfield’s strengths, not making him do too much and putting him in a system where he can make plays while limiting his turnovers.

They got him for just one year and $4 million — with incentives, he’s up to $6.6 million, but it’s still a steal for an above-average starting quarterback these days. He passed for 4,000 yards for the first time in his career, reset his career high with 28 touchdowns, and managed to take over Tom Brady’s team and lead them to more wins than they managed the year before.

He’s connected really well with wide receiver Mike Evans — they combined for 13 touchdowns, and Evans tied with Tyreek Hill for the NFL lead there. Their run game is still a struggle overall, but they hit a good patch in that late four-game win streak where running back Rachaad White was making plays on runs and catches out of the backfield.

And one thing that could come into play Monday night: Mayfield has been really sharp on third downs this year, and his QB rating there (98.2) is slightly better than Hurts. The Eagles defense, amazingly, is 31st against the pass this year but also 31st on third downs, so that’s a vulnerability the Bucs might be able to exploit.

Ralph, these two have a pretty strong postseason rivalry. The Bucs still take great pride in closing down Veterans Stadium in the 2002 playoffs on the way to their first Super Bowl, and before that, Philadelphia had ended the Bucs’ playoff hopes twice in three years. The Eagles came to Tampa two years ago and were eliminated by the Bucs then as well — these teams don’t need any extra motivation, but fans will certainly remember these games well.

Vacchiano: I remember them well, too. That 2002 game was a particularly great one — and a shocker for the Eagles who felt sure they were destined for a Super Bowl that year. Those were some great Eagles teams. They dominated the NFC in the Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb era — at least in the regular season.

I think last year convinced them they were ready to build a similar dynasty under Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts. They didn’t think it was a fluke. They thought they had built the right way — with powerful lines on both sides of the ball, an elite quarterback, great skill players. And they were sure they had the right coach, too.

Now, there’s a lot of internal soul-searching going on there — so much so that I wonder if Sirianni is going to be in trouble if they lose this game. I think that’s a crazy thought. I mean, he took them to the Super Bowl last year and we’re talking about one bad six-week stretch here. But I know owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman think they put together a Super Bowl team and they are stunned at the collapse.

They also are very often proactive when it comes to change, not reactive. Firing Sirianni would seem reactionary, but to them, it would be more of a proactive move to keep their championship window open.

I’m not saying that will happen. There’s no indication it will. I’m just wondering.

Which brings me to Todd Bowles. I covered him when he was the coach of the Jets. I thought he was a nice guy who knew how to run a defense, but was overmatched as a head coach. I never liked his clock management, I questioned a lot of the game-day decisions he made. I mean, most of his Jets teams weren’t good and he had obvious quarterback issues, but I was mostly unimpressed.

It sure looks like he’s done a heck of a job down in Tampa. With Sirianni seemingly searching for answers up here, could Bowles actually be a difference-maker in this game?

Why Nick Sirianni absolutely needs Eagles to beat Bucs

Why Nick Sirianni absolutely needs Eagles to beat Bucs

Auman: There’s something to be said for Bowles getting a second shot at a team in the postseason. When the Bucs won the Super Bowl in 2020, they had faced the Chiefs in the regular season and it wasn’t pretty at all — Tyreek Hill had 203 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a 17-0 first quarter, and it was 27-10 in the fourth quarter before the Bucs made it interesting. When they got them again in the Super Bowl, it was the best game by a Bowles defense, holding the Chiefs to nine points as the Bucs won a championship.

And the Bucs can do much better defensively against the Eagles than they did in the first meeting. Philadelphia piled up 472 yards of total offense — that’s still the Eagles’ high this year, and the second-most the Bucs allowed, behind only the Texans’ loss. The final score was 25-11, but it wasn’t that close, with the Bucs getting a touchdown late and the game ending with the Eagles at the Tampa Bay 11.

Everybody knows the Bucs are 5-1 in their last six and the Eagles are 1-5, but their defenses are at opposite extremes in that span. Philadelphia ranks 31st in scoring defense, giving up 30.3 points per game (only Washington is worse) and Tampa Bay ranks second in scoring defense, giving up 16.3, a full two touchdowns a game better than the Eagles.

So what will it take for the Eagles to get back to playing average-to-good defense?

Vacchiano: A miracle? A new defensive coordinator? Some new players?

I know, that’s not funny to people in Philly. I don’t think they can fix their tackling issues overnight and that’s going to be a problem in the playoffs. So I think their best bet is to raise the pressure on Baker Mayfield. Stop dropping Haason Reddick into coverage and turn him lose. Blitz more. Do whatever it takes to disrupt the Bucs offense.

At some point, that will burn them because if someone gets free, as I’ve noted the Eagles’ tackling stinks. But they’re going to have to take that chance and do what they were built to do — try and dominate up front. That’s their best bet for stopping anyone, I think.

Can they do that? Well, that brings me to my prediction, I guess. And I don’t think they can. This defense has been a problem all season. The six-game slide has been bad, but it’s really just an amplification of the problems they had all along. It just happens to be costing them at exactly the worst time.

And with Jalen Hurts struggling too — and now dealing with an injured finger — I’ve just got a real bad feeling about the Eagles. They’re a mess. I’m not overly impressed with the Bucs. I think the Eagles are the better team. But they’re certainly not playing like it right now.

So I’m picking the Bucs to advance with a 27-23 win, sending the Eagles into a very unexpectedly uncertain offseason.

And you?

Eagles-Buccaneers best bets, odds and predictions

Eagles-Buccaneers best bets, odds and predictions

Auman: It’s a chance for the Bucs to show how much a team can change in four months. They weren’t anything close to the Eagles in September, but their defense is a different deal now, and the Eagles’ tailspin has only gotten worse. Hurts’ injured finger could be a real limiting factor, and the Eagles’ defensive struggles are real. If the Bucs’ offensive line can contain the Eagles’ front, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin could make plays against Philadelphia’s secondary, though Mayfield has to avoid turnovers. I’ll go with Ralph and take the Bucs in a high-scoring upset, 34-31.

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.


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