Are the Buccaneers the Best Team in the NFC?
At No. 4 in Lines' Week 8 Power Ranking, the Buccaneers are the top team in the NFC, despite other franchises having better records. Sure, Tampa Bay has dropped two games — to the Saints and Bears — but now that Brady is getting more comfortable with his weapons, and the defense is dominating, there doesn't appear to be another team in the conference who can stop them.
Here's why the Bucs are the best team in the NFC.
It's Tommy Time
Forget Tua Time. It's Tommy Time in Tampa. Undoubtedly the engine behind the Bucs' resurgence, Brady has maintained his truly incredible level of play at 43, which is prehistoric in NFL parlance. Despite his age and lack of mobility, Brady is steering another top offense with his usual blend of pinpoint accuracy, smart decision making — sans a few uncharacteristic interceptions — and situational awareness. Brady’s strong play at his age shouldn't hurt his sales on his TB12 Method diet, either.
For Tampa Bay, a team that has been shuffling between mediocrity and bottom-dweller since Coach Jon Gruden took them to the Super Bowl in 2003, having a stable QB situation has been a blessing. In comparison to last year’s Jameis Winston rollercoaster of inconsistent play, Brady has been excellent. In his 20th season, Brady has thrown for 18 touchdowns already, good for second in the league behind Ryan Tannehill. His 6.7% TD rate is the third-best of his career, which again is preposterous considering he's in his 40s.
Last week against the Raiders, Brady passed Drew Brees for the most passing touchdowns ever with 559. Some QB’s win with their cannon arm or their quick feet, but Brady has his typical methodical self. He ranks 21st in yards per pass attempt (7.1), but that doesn’t mean he can’t uncork a beautiful deep pass every once in a while:
That is a simply sensational throw, perfectly placed right into the hands of receiver Scotty Miller. Watching the clip again though demands appreciation for the Buccaneers' offensive line, which has been one of the most-improved units in the NFL. Last season, the offensive line ranked 22nd in pass protection and 23rd in run blocking, according to Football Outsiders’ Offensive Line Rankings. This season, the run blocking has bumped up to 12th, while the pass protection shot up like Bitcoin in 2017: all the way to first.
Tampa Bay also is the top-rated team in adjusted sack rate at 3.9%, meaning Brady is sacked on less than 4% of dropbacks. It’s been finally money well spent for general manager Jason Licht, who has invested nearly $40 million this year in his offensive line, good for fourth-highest in the league. Let’s give it up for Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa and Tristan Wirfs. Every member of the unit has been rock solid, with Marpet standing out with an excellent 87.9 PFF grade. Wirfs, who the Bucs traded up for in the first round of the draft, is PFF's highest-rated rookie offensive tackle.
Having a strong line and quarterback is a nice start, but in today’s NFL, teams need to be stacked at the skill positions to have a chance to keep up. And the Bucs certainly don't lack talent there, either. Despite a growing list of injuries — including O.J. Howard who tore his Achilles and star receiver Chris Godwin who is now dealing with a fractured finger — the franchise has hummed along to a league-leading offense. They have scored the most points in the league at a combined 222 points through seven games, and own the best point differential at +80.
They demolished one of the best teams in the NFL in the Packers, and that’s partially thanks to their deep stable of passing options.
The Bucs have an embarrassment of riches at pass catcher. There's Mike Evans, who has been a star ever since the team drafted him in 2014. In what's becoming a theme, Evans has battled injuries this year, but that hasn’t stopped him from producing. The 6-foot-5 stud has already caught six touchdowns this season, which ranks tied for third in the NFL behind Tyler Lockett and Adam Thielen. For Godwin, in his four healthy games this season, he’s been a consistent yardage churner and has hauled in two touchdowns. The Bucs average a mind-boggling 36.2 points per game when Godwin suits up versus a respectable 29.3 without him. Other than the two main guys, the Bucs have hidden gems in Miller and rookie Tyler Johnson on the fringes. Both players have played valuable snaps and will be needed if any of the top receivers continue to struggle with injuries.
Then, there is Rob Gronkowski, who spikeballed his way out of a one-year retirement and is starting to display his all-worldly skillset from his prime. After appearing to be washed the first chunk of the season, Gronk is looking like his old scary self. In the past two games, Gronkowski has vacuumed in 10 catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 14 yards per catch. He’s moving better than ever, too.
The AB X-Factor
And we still haven’t talked about the biggest wildcard in perhaps the entire league: Antonio Brown. Yes, the embattled yet supremely talented receiver signed with the team last week, and if he looks anything like his old explosive self, the Buccaneers could be dropping 50 points before we know it. It wasn't too long ago Brown was considered the best receiver in the NFL due to his blazing speed, contested-catch ability and pristine route-running. Unfortunately, Brown hasn’t been able to stay out of the news for all the wrong reasons, but if the Steelers version of AB shows up, the Buccaneers are going to go from one of the best teams in the NFC to potentially THE best team the whole league.
To round out the offense, hard-nosed running backs Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette have formed a formidable duo in the Bucs' backfield. For Fournette specifically, the Bucs’ sturdy O-line has to make him feel like Moses when the Red Sea parted for him after years of facing 8 man boxes in Jacksonville.
While the offense has been impressive, it's the defense that sets them apart from the rest of the NFC. They lead the entire league in Football Outsiders' Defensive DVOA, are tied for third with 12 takeaways and third in yards allowed per game at 291. Veterans Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett lead a fierce pass-rushing corps that is second in the league in sacks with 25 despite losing star Vita Vea to injury. The D-line, which just added former run-clogging Jets lineman Steve McLendon, is giving up a league-low 2.70 yards per carry to opposing backs, which is .60 yards better than the second-best team.
If players get past the menacing first layer, they have to deal with LaVonte David and Devin White, possibly the best linebacker duo in the league. With those two flying around, the Bucs would be forgiven if they had a subpar secondary, which has been the case for a long time. But not this year. Antoine Winfield Jr., Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean have combined to be a mini Legion of Doom. Dean has emerged as one of the best corners in the league with an 88.8 PFF grade, while Davis is tied for second in the league with three interceptions. Winfield Jr. is a chip off his father’s old block. He’s been exactly the competent, hard-hitting safety the team has been lacking for years. If Bruce Arians had to endure one more year of Chris Banjo patrolling the airways, he might have retired again.
While the Seahawks and Packers might put up a fight for the crown, the NFC has a new superpower and it's Brady's Buccaneers.
Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration