FAB 4. 5 Bucs Games That Are Critical
It’s way too early to look at Tampa Bay’s 2018 schedule and attempt to make realistic prognostications about the team’s projected record and start tallying wins and losses. The Bucs are still months away from training camp and the chances of the team entering the regular season without an injury in camp or the preseason games is quite small. Plus, we don’t know if the NFL is going to suspend quarterback Jameis Winston over allegations that he groped a female Uber driver in the spring of 2016.
But now that we do know Tampa Bay’s schedule in terms of dates and opponents, it is possible to identify which games are most important. So without further adieu, here are the top 5 most critical games to the team’s success in 2018.
Week 1: Tampa Bay at New Orleans
It’s always important to try to get off to a good start in Week 1, but the fact that it’s an away game against an NFC South team makes the season opener at New Orleans even more meaningful. Coming away with a win in Week 1 isn’t critical. The Bucs won their season opener last year and finished 5-11. In 2002, Tampa Bay lost its season opener at home – against the Saints – yet went on to finish 12-4 and win its first and only Super Bowl. Yet, it’s an opportunity to create some early-season momentum
The Saints will want to get revenge against the Bucs for beating them to end the 2017 regular season despite the fact that New Orleans had already clinched the division title and a playoff berth. Rookie Alvin Kamara, who topped over 100 yards of total offense and scored a touchdown in each of the Saints’ games against the Bucs last year, had a 106-yard kick return to tie the game at 7-7 in the first quarter before his 7-yard rushing touchdown gave New Orleans a 14-7 lead. Without Mark Ingram, who is suspended for the first four games of the season for PED usage, the running back duties will fall squarely on Kamara’s shoulders.
In both games against Drew Brees and the Saints the Bucs only notched a combined three sacks. This Week 1 contest will be the debut of Tampa Bay’s star-studded, revamped defensive line, and with Brees being one of the more difficult quarterbacks to sack due to his quick release this will be a good test for Brentson Buckner’s troops.
Week 2: Tampa Bay vs. Philadelphia
Why is Tampa Bay’s Week 2 clash against Philadelphia so critical? There are a few reasons, and one of is which is the fact that the Eagles are the reigning Super Bowl champions. The Bucs will have faced the last three Super Bowl champs at home in each of the last couple of years, losing to Denver in 2016 and to New England last year. This year’s game will be personal for former Eagles defensive linemen Beau Allen and Vinny Curry as Tampa Bay looks to finally dethrone a Super Bowl champion.
The Week 2 clash with the Eagles will also be key for the Bucs fan base. After a disappointing 5-11 campaign during a season full of high expectations, how much enthusiasm will Tampa Bay fans for the home opener? How many Philly fans will invade Raymond James Stadium? Oh, what a win at home against the world champs could do for this young Bucs team’s confidence.
The final critical component is the Week 2 element of football. Should the Bucs fall in New Orleans and then at home against the Eagles, a 0-2 start is typically a doomsday scenario in the NFL. In fact, since 2007, 94 teams started the year 0-2 and only 10 of them made the playoffs – including last year’s Saints team. But generally speaking, it’s still a less than 10 percent chance of making the postseason. Making things even more difficult should the Bucs start off 0-2 is the fact that even if Tampa Bay were to go 3-1 over the next four games the team would only be at .500 six games into the season. Beat the Eagles and the Bucs don’t have to worry about this scenario.
Week 4: Tampa Bay at Chicago
There’s an old adage in football – win the winnable games. That means playing the role of a superior team and beating teams that are less talented when they present themselves on the schedule. Despite picking behind the Bucs last year at the No. 8 spot, Chicago finished with the same record as Tampa Bay did at 5-11. The problem was that the Bears were expected to finish last in the NFC North, especially with a rookie quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky and a head coach in John Fox, who was on the hot seat. The Bucs were expected to win many more games than they wound up winning.
Perhaps more importantly, Tampa Bay seems to have Chicago’s number, routing the Bears at home in each of the last two years, 36-10 in 2016 and 29-7 last year in the 2017 season opener. Granted, the Bucs beat a Bears team led by Jay Cutler (2016) and Mike Glennon (2017), and have yet to face Trubisky, and this game is on the road, but Tampa Bay’s revamped defense should be up to the task. The Bucs offense hasn’t had any problems putting points on the board, either.
Thinking optimistically, the Bucs could be 3-0 or 2-1 heading into this road contest just prior to a bye week that comes early this year – but not as early as last year’s Week 1 bye due to Hurricane Irma. A win in Chicago could make a 4-0 or 3-1 Tampa Bay the early surprise team in the NFL heading into the bye week. Conversely, if the Bucs limp into the Windy City 1-2 or 0-3, Tampa Bay will be in desperate need of a victory in a winnable game against a beatable opponent in order to turn things around prior to the bye week.
Week 7: Tampa Bay vs. Cleveland
Why is the Cleveland game more critical than a Week 3 contest against Pittsburgh on Monday Night, or a game against division rival like Carolina that narrowly swept Tampa Bay last year? The same rule that applied to the Bears game applies to the Browns game – win the winnable games.
Will Cleveland be improved this year after going 1-15 two years ago and 0-16 last year? Yes, the Browns should win a couple of games in 2018, but the likelihood that they will still have double digit losses at the end of the season remains a safe bet. But psychologically – for the Bucs and the fans – this is still the Browns, and a home loss to Cleveland would be quite the upset that could derail Tampa Bay’s 2018 campaign.
Remember how an early glance at the Bucs’ 2017 schedule showed the N.Y. Jets game to be an easy win because the Jets were a hapless team? Tampa Bay won 15-10 in a game that was closer than expected because Jameis Winston was out with a shoulder injury, but a win is a win. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but the Bucs need to beat the Browns. And despite the fact that this game is on Oct. 21, it’s only Tampa Bay’s third home game of the year. With the first two home contests being against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the Bucs can’t afford to go 0-3 and dishearten the fan base if the team wants to create a home-field advantage at Raymond James Stadium.
Week 17: Tampa Bay vs. Atlanta
Will the Bucs be in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt in Week 17? Will the season finale against Atlanta at Raymond James Stadium decide which team wins the NFC South division title? Will the Bucs be in the role of spoiler by Week 17 – or is it the Falcons’ turn to underachieve and be in the spoiler role this season?
Ray-Jay has become the Falcons’ southern home over the last two years, embarrassing the Bucs 43-28 on Thursday Night Football in 2016 and claiming a 24-21 victory on Monday Night Football last year during Jon Gruden’s induction into the Bucs Ring of Honor. That needs to change, and it’s the Bucs’ turn to rise up and claim their home turf in this divisional rivalry.
Whether the Bucs are in the playoffs or just on the outside, how Tampa Bay plays in Week 17 could determine the fate of head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht in terms of their future. Last year, the Bucs showed some moxie in coming from behind to beat the NFC South division champion Saints in a Week 17 upset that helped Koetter’s chances of remaining Tampa Bay’s head coach in addition to being given a vote of confidence by Licht the Friday before that game. Every team wants to end the season on a positive note, and if the Bucs are fortunate in 2018, the Week 17 battle against the Falcons won’t be their last game of the season.