For the Buccaneers to realistically keep their playoff dreams alive amidst a brutal beginning to the season, they need to squeak out a single victory. Where will it come from?
The distance between two adjacent numbers can sometimes feel so exhaustively vast. Take “zero” and “one” for example. The difference between zero wins and one win at the end of Jameis Winston’s three-game suspension is extraordinary, and that number will go a long way towards determining the playoff hopes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With one win there is hope, with zero there is none.
Winston’s mercifully short suspension is stretched out over the course of Tampa’s toughest gauntlet of the season: New Orleans, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Three playoff teams from last season which each sported nigh unstoppable offenses and are poised to continue that trend this year.
Not much needs to be said about Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, or the defending Super Bowl champions. It’s a tough, unforgiving road ahead, and if the Buccaneers can’t find a way to win at least one game of the three, their season will be over before Halloween comes around. Since 1980, only five teams have made the playoffs after starting 0-3.
If, however, the Buccaneers can find their magic one win and bring back Jameis Winston with a 1-2 record in place, the road to a playoff run will still exist.
After a favorable week four game against the Chicago Bears, who Tampa has handily beaten twice in a row, the team will get their bye and then face off against Atlanta, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Carolina and Washington. None of those teams are slouches, but if the Buccaneers play to their potential, they should compete in all of them and win more than half.
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So, one game in three. Who do they seize it from? How do they get it? Here are a few things that seem very likely.
Firstly, none of the Saints, Eagles or Steelers will go undefeated in 2018. Secondly, each of them will likely lose to a team less talented than the Buccaneers are. So, even with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm, there is hope. Each team has its own set of weaknesses that the Buccaneers could potentially expose on the way to an upset.
For Pittsburgh, it’s their defense. That feels strange to type when describing a Steelers football team, but an offense sporting Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown certainly doesn’t have many weaknesses.
On defense, however, I expect the team to struggle in the absence of linebacker Ryan Shazier. The heart and soul of the Steelers suffered a devastating back injury, and the Steelers were never able to overcome it. The team still has a stout defensive line, but a consistent rushing attack could be too much for their front seven to handle. Paging Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber.
Tampa Bay, unfortunately, plays the defending champions during the Winston suspension, but there is a bit of good fortune to squeeze out of this bitter fruit. Eagle quarterback Carson Wentz will still be getting his feet under him as he returns from ACL surgery, and his vaunted mobility will expectedly be limited because of it. The Buccaneers could catch a break in that regard and they’ll hope their revamped defensive line can take advantage.
New Orleans is the lone remaining hope for that elusive “one,” and they may be the best chance of the bunch. The Saints are of course a divisional opponent, meaning that even when the talent gap is tilted one way or the other, there’s still a solid shot for the underdog. We see upsets in divisional match-ups regularly, and the Bucs finished their 2017 season by beating this very team.
This isn’t all to say that the Buccaneers are sure to make the playoffs if they grab a win or two from their first three. They could flounder out down the road with Winston at the helm for any number of reasons. Instead, it’s more a shot of positive thinking for those fretting the brutal opening stretch of the season. Even with Winston at the helm, a 1-2 start was likely, so although the stakes are high, the bar is low, and the reward is potentially huge. Sounds like fun, right?