The Bucs know they will be on the road to start the playoffs, and they would like to avoid the early potholes. The easiest path to their first playoff victory since 2002 appears to be through the NFC East, a division where not one winning record can be found.
That’s why the most coveted wildcard spot in the NFC is the No. 5 seed. The Bucs (10-5) can clinch it with either a win over the Falcons (4-11) on Sunday or a Rams loss to the Cardinals.
The No. 5 seed faces the East’s Washington (6-9), if it beats Philadelphia (4-10-1) Sunday night. A Washington loss pits No. 5 against the winner of Cowboys (6-9)-Giants (5-10). That’s infinitely preferable to the Bucs falling to the sixth seed and likely traveling to Seattle (11-4) in the first round.
Here is a look at four of the Bucs’ most likely first-round opponents and how they match up with them.
Head coach: Ron Rivera
Offense: Assuming quarterback Alex Smith is recovered enough from a calf injury to play, the best thing you can say is that he’s a winner. Smith is 4-1 as a starter after needing 693 days to return from a broken tibia and fibula, 17 surgeries and a life-threatening infection. But Washington’s offense is very limited, ranking 30th in the league with 321.9 total yards per game. The team can run the ball a little with Antonio Gibson (720 yards, 11 TDs, 4.8 average), third-down back J.D. McKissic (365 yards, one TD, 4.4 average) and former Bucs running back Peyton Barber (248 yards, four TDs, 2.8 average). Terry McLaurin (80 receptions, 1,078 yards, three TDs) and tight end Logan Thomas (633 yards, five TDs), a converted quarterback, are the main targets in the passing game.
Defense: This is where it gets scary for the Bucs. The Washington defense is no joke. It ranks fourth overall and fifth in scoring, allowing only 21 points per game. Ohio State rookie defensive end Chase Young has 6.5 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He’s a beast and recently was named captain after that title was stripped from Dwayne Haskins. Washington is 12th in rushing defense, allowing 112.5 yards per game. That’s good, not great. But the Bucs still don’t know the game-time status of running back Ronald Jones, who is nursing a broken pinky finger.
Analysis: This is the team the Bucs should most want to play. Smith is a warrior, but since his injury, he has limited mobility and won’t extend many plays. The Bucs rank first in the league in rushing defense, negating Washington’s strength. If the Bucs can protect Tom Brady, he should be able to outscore a team that also averages 21 points per game. The intangible is Rivera, who knows the Bucs very well from his days in the NFC South.
Head coach: Mike McCarthy
Offense: Dak Prescott is out for the season after a gruesome ankle injury, but Andy Dalton is a capable quarterback with playoff experience. The Cowboys are still loaded with stars on this side of the ball: running back Ezekiel Elliott, receivers Amari Cooper, Ceedee Lamb and Michael Gallup. The Cowboys rank just below the Bucs with 376.1 yards per game. They run the football okay at 112 yards per game.
Defense: The Cowboys can’t stop the run, allowing a whopping 161 yards per game, which is worst in the league. Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette and Ke’Shawn Vaughn would run like paint on them. Brady would have plenty of play-action opportunities to strike downfield.
Analysis: You don’t want to get into a shootout, but this could be one at AT&T Stadium where Jerry Jones will stuff as many fans inside as the law allows.
New York Giants
Head coach: Joe Judge
Offense: The Giants rushed for 101 yards against the Bucs in Tampa Bay’s 25-23 win at MetLife Stadium. They were big, physical and pushed the Bucs around. Daniel Jones passed for 262 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw a pair of interceptions. Only a pass interference penalty that was picked up on Antoine Winfield Jr. prevented overtime.
Defense: The Giants held Brady to 279 yards and two touchdowns while shutting down the run. The red zone defense gave Tampa Bay fits, forcing four field goals.
Analysis: Beating a Giants team twice in the same season on the road wouldn’t be easy. The Giants sacked Brady twice and hit him four other times. At any of these venues, weather could be a factor favoring the better ground game.
Head coach: Pete Carroll
Offense: Russell Wilson is an MVP candidate and Super Bowl champion. He’s eighth in passing yards (4,031) with 38 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. But he’s been sacked 45 times, second-most in the NFL. Receivers DK Metcalf (1,282 yards, 10 TDs) and Tyler Lockett (964 yards, eight TDs) rank among the best tandem of receivers.
Defense: Throw away the stats because the Seahawks defense has become formidable with the trades for safety Jamal Adams and pass rusher Carlos Dunlap. They are fast and physical, allowing an average of 12.2 points in their past five games.
Analysis: The Bucs don’t want the sixth seed and a trip to the farthest NFL outpost to play the NFC West champs with or without the 12th man. No NFC East team is as good as Seattle.