TAMPA — Five things to watch as the Seahawks come to Raymond James Stadium today.
1 Can the Bucs defense hold Seattle to 20 points or fewer? When the Seahawks get to 21 points or more, they're 6-0 this season. When they score fewer than that, they're 1-2-1, including a 9-3 loss to the Rams and a 6-all tie against the Cardinals, both on the road. The only other team to score six points or fewer in two games this season is the Jets (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 fewer. NFL teams win 78 percent of the time at that mark, but the Bucs went 1-6 in such games in 2014.
2 How well can the Bucs contain Jimmy Graham? Graham's 649 receiving yards are second among NFL tight ends, behind Carolina's Greg Olsen, who went off for 181 yards against the Bucs in Week 5. Graham has fewer touchdown catches (four) than the Bucs' Cameron Brate (five) 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 when he was with the Saints, he had personal success against the Falcons when Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith was their head coach. In a seven-game stretch from 2010-13, Graham had seven touchdowns in seven games against Atlanta, including a monster game in 2012: seven catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns.
3 Can the Bucs pass rush get to Russell Wilson for sacks? Seattle's offensive line is completely retooled from the Seahawks' Super Bowl championship team in 2013. None of the current starting five was even in the NFL then. All are 25 or younger, and the Seahawks have turned to two rookies as starters during this season, with undrafted George Fant taking over at left tackle and first-round draft pick Germain Ifedi taking over at right guard. They might 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 league, 42 percent of sacks come on third down, when teams are more likely to hold on to the ball, hoping for time for a move-the-chains completion. The Bucs' percentage is higher; they allow 46 percent of their sacks on third down. But Seattle is at 35 percent. Only three teams have allowed fewer third-down sacks than the Seahawks. Wilson's calmness and elusiveness serve them well, even on high-pressure downs.
4 Can Tampa Bay's offensive line hold off the league's top sack defense? Seattle has 31 sacks this season, matching the NFL high. The Bucs gave up only one sack in last week's win against the Chiefs, their fewest allowed in a game since the season-opening win against Atlanta.
Statistically, the Bucs offensive line has taken a step back from 2015. It's on pace to allow 36 sacks this season after allowing 27 last season. The offense throws the ball more this season, but it is allowing one sack for every 16.9 pass attempts, compared with one every 19.8 last year. The Bucs have faced four defenses that rank in the league's top 10 in sacks, and they're 2-2 in those games. They held Carolina to two sacks and Chicago four in wins, but they allowed Denver to get five and Arizona three in lopsided losses where they had to throw more.
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. In 2012, the Bucs were 6-5 for one day in December before a five-game losing streak that let a playoff push get away. Since Barack Obama was first inaugurated president in 2008, the Bucs have had that one day, plus all December 2010 (the year the Bucs missed the playoffs at 10-6) as their only December times with a winning record.
The New York Times has a "playoff simulator," a computer projection that can track a team's likelihood of making the playoffs or winning its division. It allows you to add individual wins or losses to see how that adjusts its chances. Entering today, the Bucs have a 20 percent chance of making the playoffs, including a 13 percent chance of winning the NFC South. Beat the Seahawks and the Bucs' playoff chance increases to 30 percent. A loss drops their chance to 11 percent. Win again at San Diego the following week and their chance increases to 45 percent. A win at home against the Saints on Dec. 11 pushes the chance to 67 percent. Much can change in the last five weeks of the season, but winning today would be a huge first step toward a playoff spot.