Five things to watch in Bucs-Seahawks on Sunday
Three years ago, the Bucs went to Seattle -- without Doug Martin, and long before Jameis Winston -- and jumped out to a 21-0 lead, only to see the Seahawks storm back to a 27-24 overtime victory. It wasn't the biggest blown lead in franchise history, as the St. Louis Cardinals had a 28-0 fourth quarter in 1987 to turn a 28-3 Bucs lead into a 31-28 Cardinals win, and the Bucs actually blew a bigger lead in last year's 24-point "You like that?" collapse at the Redskins.
Neither that big lead nor that big comeback is likely to be seen Sunday as the Seahawks come to Raymond James Stadium, but here are five things to watch for ...
1. Can the Bucs defense hold Seattle to 20 points or less? That's been the line where the Seahawks become a beatable team in 2016. When they get to 21 points or more, they're 6-0, but if you can hold them to 20 or less, they're 1-2-1, including a 9-3 loss to the Rams and a 6-6 tie against the Cardinals, both on the road. Their offense is certainly capable of a bad week -- the only other team in the NFL to score 6 or less in two games this season is the Jets, who have done it three times.
That 20-point line is telling for the Bucs defense as well -- Tampa Bay is 4-0 this season when holding opponents to 20 or less, and 9-1 since Dirk Koetter and Jameis Winston took over the Bucs offense in 2015. Seems like something of a given -- NFL teams win 78 percent of the time this season when holding their opponent to 20 or less -- but then again, the Bucs went 1-6 in such games in 2014.
Now while limiting Seattle's scoring is a smart first step, no team in the NFL has been better at winning with defense since the start of the 2014 season. In games scoring 13 points or less, Seattle is somehow 4-1-1 over the last three seasons -- the rest of the NFL is 13-221-1, which translates to winning 5.5 percent of the time.
2. How well can the Bucs contain Jimmy Graham? Graham's 649 receiving yards are second among NFL tight ends, behind only Carolina's Greg Olsen, who went off for 181 yards against the Bucs in Week 5. He actually has fewer touchdown catches (4) than the Bucs' Cameron Brate (5), but remains one of the most dangerous in the league at his position.
Graham has been relatively quiet against the Bucs in his career -- just three touchdowns in nine career games -- but what's concerning is his personal success against Mike Smith's Falcons teams during his Saints days. In a seven-game stretch from 2010-13, Graham had seven touchdowns in seven games against Atlanta, including a monster game in 2012 with seven catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns.
The Saints liked to line up Graham up like a receiver, presenting mismatches either in size or speed for nearly anyone covering him, but Seattle is more likely to line him up like a traditional tight end. He has only six touchdowns in 21 games with Seattle, so he hasn't been the same scoring threat he was with Drew Brees throwing him the ball.
3. Can the Bucs' pass rush get to Russell Wilson for sacks? Seattle's line is completely retooled from their Super Bowl championship team in 2013. None of the current starting five were even in the NFL then -- they're all 25 or younger, and they've turned to two rookies as starters during the season, with undrafted rookie George Fant taking over at left tackle and first-rounder Germain Ifedi taking over at right guard. They may be without starting center Justin Britt (ankle) for the first time this season, testing their depth.
It's easier to get to Wilson on early downs than on third down -- across the NFL, 42 percent of sacks come on third down, when teams are more likely to hold onto the ball, hoping for time for a move-the-chains completion. The Bucs are even higher, allowing 46 percent of their sacks on third downs, but Seattle is down at 35 percent. Only three teams in the NFL have allowed fewer third-down sacks than Seattle, where Wilson's calm and elusiveness serve them well, even on high-pressure downs.
4. Can Tampa Bay's offensive line hold off the NFL's top sack defense? Seattle has 31 sacks this season, matching the NFL high. The Bucs gave up only one sack in Sunday's win against the Chiefs, their fewest allowed in any game since the season-opening win against Atlanta.
Statistically, the Bucs' offensive line has taken a step back from 2015, on pace to allow 36 sacks this season after allowing 27 last season. The offense throws the ball more this season, but they're allowing one sack for every 16.9 pass attempts, as opposed to one every 19.8 last year. The Bucs have already faced four defenses that rank in the NFL's top 10 in sacks, and they're 2-2 in those games, holding Carolina to two sacks and Chicago four in their wins, but allowing Denver to get five and Arizona three in lopsided losses where they had to throw the ball more.
The Bucs likely won't have to face Michael Bennett, still recovering from knee surgery, but watch out for Cliff Avril, who goes largely unnoticed but has 10 sacks this season. He and second-year DE Frank Clark (7.5) have more than half of Seattle's sacks, so there's pressure on tackles Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson.
5. Can the Bucs carry a winning record into December? A win would put the Bucs at 6-5, and above .500 this late in the season for the first time in four years. Even then, the Bucs were 6-5 in 2012 for one day in December before a five-game losing streak that let the season get away. Since Barack Obama was first inaugurated as president, the Bucs have had that one day, plus all of December 2010 (when the Bucs missed the playoffs at 10-6) as their only December with a winning record.
The New York Times, much as it did for the presidential election, has a "Playoff Simulator" computer projection that can track a team's likelihood of making the playoffs or winning its division, allowing you to add individual wins or losses (much like a candidate carrying or losing an individual state) to see how that adjusts their chances.
Entering Sunday, the Bucs have a 20 percent chance of making the playoffs, including a 13 percent chance at winning the NFC South. Beat the Seahawks on Sunday, and the Bucs' playoff chances increase to 30 percent, with a loss dropping their odds to 11 percent. Win again at San Diego the following week, the odds increase to 45 percent, and a win back home against the Saints on Dec. 11 pushes the chances to 67 percent. Much can change in the last five weeks of the season, but winning Sunday is a huge first step.