The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 10-6 win over a Romo-less Dallas Cowboys team on Sunday might not have been overwhelmingly impressive, but it was meaningful nonetheless.
The Bucs finished. They won a close game. They came back in the fourth quarter.
In the past, it was exactly the kind of game that they would have lost.
In the short term, Jameis Winston's game-winning touchdown run and Bradley McDougald's game-sealing interception changed the outlook of the Bucs' 2015 season. Instead of heading to Philadelphia at 3-6, they're a game under .500 and winners of three of their past five.
Instead of coach Lovie Smith talking about his team not making enough plays, he's taking questions in news conferences about his team making the playoffs.
"We are in the mix," he said Monday. "Everything that we set in front of us is there. That's the carrot. Yeah, it would be great to win two in a row, it would be great to get to .500. All of those things though, are automatically built in to what our goals are weekly. Our main goal weekly is to improve on last week's effort."
In the Eagles, the Bucs face their greatest challenge since their 37-23 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 4. While Philadelphia also is 4-5, it's a team that's capable of playing much better football than it has. You've already heard that Chip Kelly runs the fastest offense in the NFL (averages 22.3 seconds per play), but the defense is arguably one of the league's top five.
From the Department of Don't Rank Defenses by Yardage: The Eagles are 18th in yards allowed (3,223) but tied for ninth in points allowed (20.4 per game). By comparison, the Bucs are seventh in yards allowed (3,008) but 26th in points allowed (26.3).
Philadelphia features a tenacious front seven, led by interior defender Fletcher Cox. The All-Pro-caliber lineman has 40 quarterback pressures this season, 15th-most among all defensive players, according to Pro Football Focus. Outside linebackers Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin generate pressure as well and are also excellent in defending against perimeter runs and short passes.
After catching 12 touchdowns in 2014 — a Bucs single-season record — Mike Evans has found the end zone just once this season. The Eagles play a lot of man-to-man coverage, so Evans, who has seen at least 12 targets and posted 125 receiving yards in three of his past four games, should get opportunities against cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Nolan Carroll. If there's a weakness on this Philadelphia defense, it's the coverage of No. 1 receivers, who have gained 98.4 yards per game against the Eagles. Only the San Francisco 49ers have surrendered more (103.9).
The offense, the Eagles' strength the past two seasons, is the reason why they're 4-5. Early in the season, the run blocking was horrendous, and free-agent catch DeMarco Murray, the NFL's leading rusher in 2014, struggled, gaining just 11 yards in his first two games. Those were expensive yards; Murray earned $56,818 for each one.
When the Eagles ripped off four straight games of at least 150 rushing yards, it seemed as though their run game had turned a corner. But in a 20-19 loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 10, it regressed as Philadelphia gained only 83 yards, partly because of Ndamukong Suh and partly because of awkward handoff exchanges between quarterback Mark Sanchez, who replaced an injured Sam Bradford in the third quarter, and Murray. If the Eagles can't run the ball, they can't win, and it won't be easy against the Bucs, who are allowing 3.6 yards per carry, third-best in the NFL.
The Eagles have ruled out Bradford (separated shoulder and concussion) for this Sunday, so the Sanchize will get the start against the Bucs. The turnover-prone Sanchez is basically Bradford but without the accuracy. In 2014, his 71.1 accuracy percentage — a Pro Football Focus statistic that accounts for drops, throw aways, spikes, batted passes and passes when the quarterback was hit while attempting to throw — ranked 28th (Bradford's 76.8 accuracy percentage entering Week 10 ranked sixth). As an Eagle, he is 4-4 as a starter and has thrown a pick in five straight games and in eight of 10.
When Sanchez took over against the Dolphins, the Eagles' issues inside the 20-yard line persisted as they managed only three points out of two fourth-quarter visits to the red zone. The first trip shouldn't have even happened as two potential touchdowns earlier in the drive never came to fruition. On one, Sanchez hit Miles Austin on what would have been a 26-yard touchdown, but the receiver failed to keep both feet in bounds. Two plays later, an illegal shift penalty wiped out a 22-yard touchdown to Zach Ertz. The passes would have given the Eagles a 23-20 lead; instead, they ended up settling for a field goal.
The outcome of the Eagles' next visit to the red zone could not have been worse. On second-and-goal from the Miami 9-yard line, Sanchez faked the handoff, rolled to the left and looked for Austin on a crossing route in the end zone. This was a concept the Eagles had run repeatedly against the Dolphins, and safety Reshad Jones recognized it and caught the pass instead of Austin. Inside the red zone, Eagles quarterbacks have thrown four interceptions and have posted the league's worst passer rating (49.7).
It was a poor decision by Sanchez, but the play call was as predictable as a Rocky movie plot.
Defeat. Training montage. Victory (real or symbolic). Repeat.
Snap. Fake handoff. Crossing route. Repeat.
The Eagles used the concept to set up a touchdown in the first quarter. Let's go to the All-22 coaches film for a closer look.
On first-and-10 from their own 36-yard line, the Eagles come to the line in the shotgun formation and in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers). Tight end Brent Celek lines up on the left side of the offensive line and is going to run a crossing route toward the right side of the field.
Bradford's fake handoff pulls several Dolphins defenders toward the backfield and to the left side of the field, away from where the play is designed to go.
As Bradford rolls to his right, Celek is wide open about 15 yards down the field. He hits Celek in stride, and the tight end shoots through key blocks set by Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff. If not for safety Walt Aikens' tackle at the 4-yard line, Celek would have celebrated his third touchdown of the season.
The Eagles run a similar play from the 2-yard line two plays later. Celek is open again, but Bradford has to escape pressure from defensive end Derrick Shelby.
As he nears the sideline, two Dolphins defenders converge on both Celek in the end zone and outlet receiver Riley Cooper in the flat. No one is covering Huff, who breaks off his route in the back of the end zone and cuts back to the right.
Just before Suh hits him, Bradford throws across his body toward the middle of the field for the touchdown.
Later in the first quarter, the Eagles again have a receiver wide open on a crossing route, but Bradford's throw sails over Ertz's head.
The overthrow was characteristic not only of the Eagles' play against the Dolphins but also of their season, which has been one of unfulfilled expectations and missed opportunities.
As you can see, this is a staple of the Eagles' offense, and Philadelphia will go to it early and often. Here's another example from the first quarter of the Eagles' Week 6 game against the New York Giants. This time, Matthews, lined up in the slot, is the target.
He runs behind the linebackers and is open but drops the ball when safety Brandon Meriweather delivers a hit as unforgiving as an Ivan Drago punch. It's hard to blame Matthews — he has no time to brace himself — but Eagles receivers have dropped so many passes this season that they make the (justified) criticism of Mike Evans seem petty. They've dropped a whopping 5.9 percent of their targets; only the Houston Texans (6.1) have dropped a greater percentage.
One potential wrinkle to watch for when the Eagles deploy a receiver on a crossing route: He could run to the middle of the field and then cut back toward the sideline, as Matthews did on his game-winning touchdown grab against the Cowboys in overtime in Week 9.
Given the Bucs' and Eagles' proclivity for penalties and turnovers, this game will come down to which team shoots itself in the foot less. The Bucs are tied for the fourth-most false start penalties (14), but the Eagles aren't far behind with 12. Tampa Bay's offense has also committed 18 holding penalties, tied for fifth-most; Philadelphia has committed 15.
As far as turnovers, they've each given the ball away 16 times; only eight teams have turned the ball over more. The Eagles, however, have recorded 20 takeaways, tied with the Panthers for second-most.
Prediction: Prediction? Pain.
(And the Eagles, too.)
My record: 6-2