After a somewhat rocky start (remember Brady forgetting what down it was at the end of the game in Chicago?), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are now 5-2 and boast back-to-back blowout wins over the previously undefeated Green Bay Packers, and the Las Vegas Raiders—a team that people might dismiss, but which nevertheless was good enough to beat the reigning Champion Kansas City Chiefs just 15 days ago.
Suddenly, people are saying the Bucs are the best team in the NFC. Are they correct?
Yes. We’ll go over the reasons why, but to sum it all up succinctly, the reason is because they’re the most complete team in the conference, and possibly the league.
They just don’t have many weaknesses. Let’s review:
- Tom Brady looks like vintage Tom Brady. It is now apparent that his declining production in 2018 and 2019 was mainly a product of the stark lack of offensive talent around him in New England, and it’s probably the main reason he left the Patriots in the first place. The fact that that Patriots offense is so bad this year compared to last–when it was below-average–makes it pretty clear that it was not Brady’s fault. Now with elite offensive weapons in Tampa, Brady appears to be back in prime form, which is amazing for a 43-year-old QB. What he’s doing right now at his age has never been done before. The tape looks good. He’s throwing it downfield and not relying as much on dinking and dunking. Earlier in the season, you could tell the Bucs’ offense was not on the same page, but they’re getting it figured out. We knew the talent was there, but what we didn’t know was if Brady could, at age 43, maximize all the talent on that team. It’s pretty safe now to say that he can, has been and will continue doing so.
- The defense: They’re only allowing 3.0 yards per rush, which is the best in the league–even ahead of the Steelers’ 3.4. They have 25 sacks thus far, which is second-best in the league behind the Steelers’ 26. They rank 6th in the league in opposing passer rating against. And their defense only allows 4.8 yards per play, which is tied for the best in the league with the Colts. They rank 3rd in the league in opposing yards allowed per game at 291, and are one of three teams (the others being Pittsburgh at 286 and the Colts at 288) to hold opponents to under 300 yards per game. The Bucs have an elite defense, and this is what separates them from other elite teams in the NFC.
- The offensive line: According to Football Outsiders, the Tampa offensive line ranks #1 in the league in pass protection. Running the ball, Tampa’s line ranks #1 in the league in power run success, which measures your ability to move the chains on the ground on 3rd and 4th downs with 2 or fewer yards to go. Having the ability to keep the chains moving is obviously crucial at all times, but it’s even more important in the playoffs when the first downs are harder to come by.
- Antonio Brown: The Bucs signed AB because Brady pushed for it. That was the primary reason. But another major factor was the injuries to Godwin and Evans. It’s unclear whether Evans’ ankle is fully healthy despite him not having missed a game this season. Godwin has missed 3 of 7 games and now is set to miss at least one more game with a fractured finger. I’m not going to say the Bucs “need” Antonio Brown because even despite the injuries, plenty of teams out there (like the Patriots) would kill for their offensive weapons. But AB is not as much of a luxury for Tampa as people think. Mike Evans has not been all that productive this season, especially when Godwin plays. They’ve had to lean on Scotty Miller and Justin Watson for stretches this season. And they’ve run the ball quite a bit: with 180 rushing attempts on the season thus far, they’re only barely outside the top-10, the cut-off point of which is 185 total rushing attempts. They will absolutely benefit from getting AB out there. He will open up the field for the other receivers and make it basically impossible to double-team anyone. He turns what is already a very good offense into probably the second-most most dangerous offense in the league behind Kansas City.
- Buttoned-Up: The Bucs went 7-9 last year despite Jameis Winston giving opposing teams 112 points by way of interceptions and fumbles. As a team they had 41 turnovers last year and a differential of -13. This year they only have 7 through 7 games, with a +5 differential. Last season, the Bucs had 7 turnovers in one game (week 6 vs. Carolina). And the thing is, this season they’re basically on pace to force the same number of turnovers as they did last year: 28. The difference, as you probably can guess, is in them committing significantly fewer turnovers. Last year they averaged over 2.5 per game, this year they’re averaging 1 per game. Last year, the Bucs were -140 in net penalty yardage compared to their opponents, this year they’re on pace to be +75 in net penalty yards. Last season their opponents got 39 total first downs via penalties, this season they’re projected to get 27. The Bucs have cleaned things up. In their game against Green Bay, they became the first team since 1972 to have a “perfect game“: no sacks allowed, no turnovers and no penalties against. This is a mark of a well-disciplined team, and in my opinion, given the stark contrast between last year and this year, this is the Tom Brady Effect. All his yelling on the sidelines has paid off. He’s brought the Patriot Way–attention to detail, discipline, accountability, commitment to excellence, not beating yourself–to Tampa. Actually, maybe it’s the Brady Way, not the Patriot Way…
- Scoring Percentage differential: The Bucs score on 46.3% of their drives, and allow opponents to score on only 29.6% of theirs, a differential of +16.7%. Their NFC competition is just not at their level in this category: the Packers, while they score on an incredible 51.6% of drives, are not quite as good as the Bucs at +10.3%. The Saints are only +3.5%, the Cardinals are +7.6%, and the Rams are +7.3%. And Seattle? -2.8%. They’re the only great team in the league with a negative scoring percentage differential. How do the Bucs compare to the AFC’s top teams? Their mark of +16.7% is better than the Steelers (+15.3%). The Chiefs are at +17.6%, Baltimore leads the league in differential at +18.3%. Tennessee is +11.1%, the Colts are +13.1%. So the Bucs rank 3rd in the league in scoring percentage differential, behind only the Chiefs and the Ravens. Having a wide margin means you’re elite on both offense and defense.
The NFC Competition
- The Saints: Yes, New Orleans handled Tampa pretty easily in week 1. But it’s hard to argue that New Orleans looks like the better team right now going into week 8. Michael Thomas hasn’t been on the field since week 1. Drew Brees looks a little better throwing the ball, but his arm is nowhere near what it once was. They have had to win close games against teams they should be handling fairly easily: they fell behind 14-0 to Detroit before rallying to win 35-29 in week 4. They needed OT to beat the Chargers, 30-27. And this past week they barely hung on against the Panthers, 27-24. Look, wins are wins, and it’s hard to ding a team for winning games. But the Saints just don’t look like an elite NFL team. Teams change throughout the season, and since their week 1 matchup, the Bucs look like a team that has gotten better, and the Saints look like a team that has at best treaded water. They allow 29.0 points a game on defense, which is tied with the Jets for 24th in the league. They allow opponents to score 2.87 points per drive, while they average 2.84 points per drive. That is not a great sign. The Saints have some real problems, mainly on defense. The good news for them is they have a lot of talent, so it’s within the realm of possibility for that defense to turn things around. But right now it’s their biggest weakness.
- The Seahawks. Yes, Russell Wilson is the MVP front-runner. Yes, Seattle’s offense is highly dangerous and ranked #1 in the league. And yes, the Seahawks very well could’ve won that game in Arizona and remained undefeated. But that defense is a real problem. They rank 23rd in the league overall and allow 28.7 points per game. As we went over above, they are the only top-10 team with a negative scoring drive differential, however they do manage to hold opposing offenses to a lower average points-per-drive (2.48) than their offense averages (2.96). In terms of yards-per-play, Seattle allows 6.3, which is 4th-worst in the league. For context, their top-ranked offense averages 6.6 yards per play. Now it’s true that the Seahawks have missed Jamal Adams, their best defensive player, who hasn’t played a game since week 3 due to a groin injury. Seattle definitely needs him back, but their defense was still allowing 28.7ppg when he was healthy. He is not going to magically turn that defense around. While Russ has been incredible this year, he has to basically be perfect every single game because his defense gives him no margin for error at all. It’ll be their ultimate undoing.
- The Packers: There’s not really much to say here about Green Bay given that the Bucs just beat them 38-10 in week 6. It was a dominant performance in all phases of the game by the Bucs. They benefitted from a few uncharacteristic Aaron Rodgers turnovers which probably will not happen if (when) they meet again, but overall the Bucs were just a better team than the Packers. Still, Bucs-Packers is my prediction for the NFC Championship. I see them as the two most complete teams in the NFC. I am not at all discounting the possibility that Aaron Rodgers gets the last laugh in the playoffs, because he absolutely could. But the Packers are going to have to get better for things to go differently in the playoffs, because as it stands now, the Bucs are clearly superior.
There is no team in the NFC as complete as the Buccaneers.
They have elite weapons on offense. They have an elite defense. They have an elite offensive line. They’re disciplined and buttoned-up. And they have an elite quarterback now. As much as people wanted to write Brady off after last season, it’s clear now that he can still play at a very high level and that he was not the problem in New England in 2019.
Are they invincible? No, I wouldn’t go that far. They’re just three weeks removed from being pushed around by the Bears. They sacked Brady 3 times and were in his face all night long, holding him to a pretty average statline of 25/41 passing for 253 yards and 1 TD. Of course, the Bucs have gelled as the season has progressed, and they were without Godwin, Brady’s top slot receiver. Gronk still hadn’t fully shaken off the rust by the time that game rolled around. I think losing that game to Chicago was a wake-up call for the Bucs and they’ve really turned a corner since that night.
They are the best team in the NFC. I don’t think there’s much debate over this, honestly. Right now, they are my pick to win the NFC. Things could change over the rest of the season, but right now Tampa is the team to beat in the NFC.