The Buccaneers season will come down to one division
By Andrew Olson
We are halfway through the 2023 campaign for these Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the team is a long way from where fans were expecting. Sitting at 3-5, the season is already in dire straits for Todd Bowles, Tom Brady, and company. But the season is far from over, and strangely the Buccaneers’ playoff hopes could very well come down to their performance against one equally disappointing division.
Enter the NFC West, a division that was projected to be among the league’s best prior to the season, and is now looking like one of its biggest letdowns. Boasting three playoff teams from last year, both members of the NFC Championship, and the eventual Super Bowl winner, the NFC West was believed to be a powerhouse. And yet, those three playoff teams have combined for a 10-13 record through 8 weeks. The fourth, the surprising Seattle Seahawks, hold the division’s only winning record at 5-3.
This story, of several teams vastly underperforming their high preseason expectations, should be familiar to Bucs fans, after all it is the same story that has been unfolding for Tampa Bay. So, it is only fitting that the Buccaneers, playing in essentially must-win games throughout the rest of their season, must still play all four members of the NFC West.
In order to break free of their slump, the 2023 Tampa Bay Buccaneers must prove themselves against the teams they are being compared to, the teams slumping in similar ways. It is almost poetic, and it is set to be a tremendously interesting chapter in the story of this NFL season. So, lets take a closer look at the matchups that will redefine the NFC playoff race, and the Buccaneers’ 2023 season.
1. Los Angeles Rams (Week 9)
The defending Super Bowl champs have played themselves into a bit of a rivalry with the Buccaneers over the last several seasons. Since Brady’s arrival in Tampa Bay, the Rams have been the only team in the NFL that have beaten the Buccaneers multiple times without also losing against them.
The most devastating of these losses for Tampa Bay was, of course, the last time the two teams played. The divisional round of last season’s playoffs saw the Rams knock off the favored Buccaneers in Raymond James, en route to their eventual Super Bowl victory.
Even though the Rams haven’t gotten much out of Matthew Stafford or their offense outside of Cooper Kupp, the defense remains threatening, and the presence of Aaron Donald in the middle will prove a challenge for Tampa’s much-maligned offensive line. Should be a good one coming up.
2. Seattle Seahawks (Week 10)
The Seahawks, flying in the face of all preseason prognostications, are leading the NFC West standings. Most of this is due to the stellar play of resurgent signal caller Geno Smith and his excellent offensive skill players in D.K. Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, and Kenneth Walker.
But Seattle is also playing well as a whole. The defense has been shoddy at times, but some tremendous production from rookies all over the field have allowed them to make just enough plays to keep winning. Still, it’s hard to see the Seahawks as a similar level of threatening to the Rams, or even the 49ers, when the teams they’ve beaten have gone a combined 20-28 (including the 6-2 New York Giants, who are not as good as their record).
To win, Tampa Bay will have to channel the defense of the last few years, and shut down RB sensation Kenneth Walker’s gashing runs between the tackles. If they can make Geno Smith one-dimensional, the Buccaneers have a good shot at winning this game.
3. San Francisco 49ers (Week 14)
Much the same as the Rams, the 49ers are a team with tremendous amounts of talent on both sides of the ball, being held back by a few glaring weaknesses. For the 49ers, that weakness is QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who stepped back into the starting role after promising second-year passer Trey Lance suffered a season-ending injury early in the year.
Jimmy G, as he is affectionately known, hasn’t quite gotten the elite talent at all levels of the offense to produce as much as the 49ers are expecting. However, with RB Christian McCaffrey (a familiar face to these Buccaneers) in the fold, the 49ers looked dominant in their victory over the Rams in Week 8.
With the division weakened and very much still up for grabs, the 49ers could prove themselves to be the team to beat in the NFC West. They will be a tough test when the Bucs come to Santa Clara in week 14.
4. Arizona Cardinals (Week 16)
The Cardinals are a tougher team to figure out, when it comes to how steep the challenge is for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On the one hand, they’ve been playing exactly like a league-average team. The teams they have beaten are a combined 7-16, while the teams that they have lost to are a combined 26-10. In other words, they have beaten bad teams and lost to good ones.
They have the definite possibility to improve, as they have already gotten superstar WR DeAndre Hopkins back, and expect to get star speedster WR, and offseason trade acquisition Marquise Brown back from injury in a few weeks. But contrasting that is the so-called Kingsbury Curse.
Under Kliff Kingsbury, the Cardinals had had a tendency to fade away rather than play better in the second half of the season. Last year is a good example of this, as the Cardinals began 7-0, only to finish the season 4-8. This is actually more than just a Cardinals phenomenon, as Kingsbury-led teams have almost all exhibited this tendency. Since 2013, teams under his guidance have averaged a 67% win rate in the first seven games of the season. But they then average just a 27% win rate the rest of their games.
So, the Cardinals are a hard team to get a bead on. Expect this game to come down to Tampa’s mistakes more than the Cardinals’ play.
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