Saturday, November 25, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Raiders, Falcons, Bucs, Texans and Bills: Contenders or pretenders?

RECOMMENDED READING


It's almost Halloween — time to sort out the NFL contenders and pretenders. It's like dumping your pillowcase of candy on the kitchen table and separating the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups from the Necco Wafers.

As always, the Patriots are really, really good and the Browns are really, really Browns, even Brownsier than usual. Through seven weeks, the Vikings, Seahawks and Broncos are all firmly in the "contenders" category while the 49ers, Bears, Panthers and Jets are researching hotel rooms in Philadelphia ahead of April's draft.

Everyone else warrants more consideration. Let's look at a handful of teams, starting with the Bucs' opponent Sunday.

Oakland Raiders (5-2, first place in the AFC West)

A 5-2 record and quarterback Derek Carr's strong start have affirmed the Raiders' preseason status as up-and-comers. They lead their division, but don't jump on the bandwagon just yet. Their record masks some serious flaws.

The most significant flaw is the defense, which is allowing a league-high 6.7 yards per play (the league average is 5.5). Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, two teams have reached the playoffs after leading the league in yards allowed per play (1996 Vikings and 2011 Packers).

Oakland has allowed 42 explosive plays (passes of 25 or more yards and runs of 10 or more yards) this season, fourth-most. The offense, even with Carr and receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, hasn't been able to keep pace, as it has executed just 30 explosive plays.

The shortfall has contributed to a minus-4 toxic differential. Only 10 teams, including the Bucs, have a worse margin. Toxic differential adds a team's explosive play margin and its turnover margin. Ten of the top 12 teams in toxic differential last season reached the playoffs.

RELATED STORY: What toxic differential tells us about the Bucs

The Raiders also have benefited from a favorable schedule. The teams they've beaten (Saints, Titans, Ravens, Chargers and Jaguars) have a combined record of 14-21. They beat the hapless Jaguars 33-16, but the difference in their other four wins has been one score, and the difference in three of their wins is five points combined.

Perhaps the Raiders are finding ways to win. That would be a more convincing argument if there weren't other indications they're playing less like a 10-6 contender and more like an 8-8 pretender.

Verdict: Pretenders

• • •

Atlanta Falcons (4-3, first place in the NFC South)

The Falcons started 6-1 last season and collapsed, so it's fair to wonder whether their 4-1 start this season is another mirage.

There were signs last season that Atlanta was on the verge of regression. One of those signs was its plus-43 point differential after seven games. Based on that, the Falcons were playing like a four or five-win team, not a six-win team. They won four of those six games by six or fewer points.

The Falcons also had not defeated a quality opponent to that point. To get to six wins, they beat the Eagles, Giants, Cowboys (led by Brandon Weeden), Texans (led by Ryan Mallett/Brian Hoyer), Washington (in overtime) and the Titans.

Atlanta's 4-3 record this season is a more accurate reflection of its play. To arrive at a plus-30 point differential, the Falcons have won a couple of close games but lost a couple, too. The difference this year is they've gone on the road and beaten a quality opponent — the Broncos. They've lost two straight games, but the losses to the Seahawks and Chargers came down to officials missing blatant interference on late-game passes to Julio Jones.

With the Panthers unlikely to recover from a 1-5 start, the NFC South is wide open. If the Bucs beat the Raiders on Sunday, they'll battle the Falcons on Thursday night with first place up for grabs.

Verdict: Contenders

• • •

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-3, second place in the NFC South)

So what about those Bucs? They haven't been at least .500 after six games since 2011, when they started 4-2. That season didn't end so well — they didn't win another game.

This season's Bucs aren't that bad. If the 34-17 win over the 49ers last Sunday showed us anything, it was that Tampa Bay is capable of soundly beating inferior teams.

The Bucs, however, have much to prove before we can suggest they're anything more than mediocre. As is the case with the Raiders, the Bucs' record hides two warning signs: a negative point differential (minus-31) and a negative toxic differential (minus-6).

While the Raiders can blame their negative toxic differential solely on the number of explosive plays they've allowed, the Bucs have struggled to limit both explosive plays and giveaways. Tampa Bay has turned the ball over 12 times. Only four teams turned the ball over more often in their first six games.

The Bucs have made some progress in this department. Eleven of those 12 giveaways came in their first four games. Despite the improvement, Jameis Winston's interception rate of 3.8 percent remains the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. Tampa Bay's path to contention hinges on its continued care of the football.

Verdict: Pretenders

• • •

Houston Texans (4-3, first place in the AFC South)

The Texans in the offseason did the horror-movie equivalent of running up the stairs when they gave $37 million guaranteed to a quarterback with seven career starts. You understood why they did it — coach Bill O'Brien somehow managed 18 wins in two seasons with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer and T.J. Yates as his quarterbacks — but you still winced.

Seven games into the Brock Osweiler era, the Texans' demise seems inevitable. By QBR, DVOA and every other conceivable acronym we use to measure quarterback performance, Osweiler has been brutal. He's not even good at being tall. In the fourth quarter Monday, the Broncos defensive line batted two of his passes. When you're 9 feet tall, you're supposed to be able to a.) step on your opponents or b.) throw over them.

Because the Texans play in the AFC South — two of their wins have come against division rivals — they'll remain in the playoff hunt. Their ceiling, however, is low. In losses to the Patriots, Vikings and Broncos, they've been outscored 85-22.

Verdict: Pretenders

• • •

Buffalo Bills (4-3, second place in the AFC East)

The Bills' run game kept them in contention last season and is thriving again. Buffalo leads the NFL in yards per rush (5.3) and rushes of 10 or more yards (33), is tied for the league lead in touchdowns (11) and is second in rushing first downs (57).

To crash the playoffs, the Bills needed a defensive turnaround. Coach Rex Ryan's solution was to hire his brother, Rob, whom the Saints fired in November. New Orleans allowed a league-high 29.8 points last season.

Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi's 214 yards on 28 carries Sunday showed the defense remains susceptible to big plays. It is, however, holding opponents this season to nearly four fewer points per game than last season.

An AFC wild-card spot could be at stake when the Bills meet the Raiders in Week 13. But with the Patriots on tap Sunday and the Seahawks in Seattle after that, Buffalo's situation feels volatile. We could be a couple of blowout losses away from seeing Rob go from walking the sideline to crushing beer cans on his forehead in the stadium parking lot.

Verdict: Contenders

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

Comments
Bucs-Falcons: Tampa Bay Times staff predictions for Sunday’s 1 p.m. game

Bucs-Falcons: Tampa Bay Times staff predictions for Sunday’s 1 p.m. game

The Bucs face the defending NFC champion in its new home Sunday in Atlanta.Here’s the Times’ Bucs coverage team’s predictions for Tampa Bay’s 1 p.m. game against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium:MATTY ICE-FOLLIESRick Stroud, @NFLStroud: T...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Bucs journal: DE Will Gholston likely to return from neck injury

Bucs journal: DE Will Gholston likely to return from neck injury

TAMPA — Bucs DE Will Gholston is expected to make a healthy return Sunday in Atlanta after missing two games with a neck injury, and he’s thankful and relieved not to have to deal with anything more severe."It was knee-buckling," said Gholston, offic...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Cannon Fodder podcast: Eye on Julio Jones, new stadium

Cannon Fodder podcast: Eye on Julio Jones, new stadium

Times Bucs writer Greg Auman is back for one more Bucs-Falcons preview podcast, looking at Julio Jones’ rank among the all-time Bucs’ opponents, the new stadium in Atlanta, our story on game balls and much more. Listen below: ...
Published: 11/24/17
Bucs’ Will Gholston glad to return from ‘knee-buckling’ neck injury

Bucs’ Will Gholston glad to return from ‘knee-buckling’ neck injury

Bucs defensive end Will Gholston will make a healthy return Sunday in Atlanta after missing two games with a neck injury, and he's thankful and relieved not to have to deal with anything more severe."It was knee-buckling," Gholston said. "I was stand...
Published: 11/24/17
Bucs players, coaches say they cherish getting game balls for special feats

Bucs players, coaches say they cherish getting game balls for special feats

TAMPA — In the jubilant moments after a Bucs win, Dirk Koetter will sometimes ask for a game-used ball from his equipment staff, hold it high in the locker room and present it to the player who was most crucial to the victory.NFL players can ask for ...
Published: 11/23/17

Koetter says Bucs not distracted by Jameis Winston’s off-field issue

The Bucs are 1-0 since news broke last Friday of Jameis Winston being accused by an Uber driver of groping her during a ride in March of 2016.That's really all the evidence coach Dirk Koetter needs to say the issue has not been a distraction to the t...
Published: 11/22/17
Updated: 11/23/17
Presenting the 2017 Sports Turkey of the Year

Presenting the 2017 Sports Turkey of the Year

Happy Turkey Day!Today is a day of tradition.The Macy’s parade. Turkey and stuffing. The Lions and Cowboys.And our annual "Turkey of the Year.’’It’s a tradition started by my former colleague at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the brilliant columnist P...
Published: 11/22/17
Updated: 11/23/17
Bucs journal: Gerald McCoy says team has not turned the corner yet

Bucs journal: Gerald McCoy says team has not turned the corner yet

TAMPA — The Bucs have some positive momentum with back-to-back wins, but DT Gerald McCoy said it’s too soon to say his 4-6 team has turned a corner."We haven’t turned a corner yet," McCoy said Wednesday, preparing for Sunday’s game at Atlanta. "It’s ...
Published: 11/22/17
McCoy is only Bucs player in Pro Bowl voting top 10s

McCoy is only Bucs player in Pro Bowl voting top 10s

The Bucs aren't faring well in early Pro Bowl fan voting, with DT Gerald McCoy as the only Tampa Bay player ranking in the top 10 at his position.McCoy, seeking his sixth straight Pro Bowl selection, ranks seventh among NFL defensive tackles, one wee...
Published: 11/22/17
NFL Week 12: Tampa Bay Times staff picks

NFL Week 12: Tampa Bay Times staff picks

Happy Thanksgiving! It's already week 12 of the NFL season, and the football feast is set to begin. It all starts at at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, when the Lions try to win their fifth straight Thanksgiving Day game against a Minnesota team out to bec...
Published: 11/22/17