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NFL playoffs: Three things to watch for in Eagles-Buccaneers on Super Wild Card Weekend

Philadelphia Eagles
2023 · 11-6-0
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2023 · 9-8-0

Two clubs that ended the 2023 regular season drifting in opposite directions collide Monday night in the final game of Super Wild Card Weekend.

The 11-6 Eagles cratered down the stretch, finishing with five losses in their final six games. The last two defeats came against opponents with 11-plus losses (Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants). Philly became the sixth team in NFL history to enter the playoffs having lost five of their final six games, per NFL Research. The good news: three of the previous five won in the Wild Card Round. The bad news: none advanced past the Divisional Round.

On the flip side, the 9-8 Buccaneers won five of their final six games to swipe the NFC South division title following a midseason swoon. Todd Bowels' club caused timely turnovers down the stretch, and the offense found a groove to punch a playoff ticket. The final two weeks weren't pretty, with a home loss to New Orleans and squeaking by the two-win Panthers, but they made the tournament.

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Monday marks a rematch of Week 3, when Philly demolished the Bucs, gobbling up a 472-to-174-yard advantage in a 25-11 victory that never felt close. As Tampa players noted this week, both clubs are vastly different than when they faced off in September.

Will the Eagles finally solve the issues that plagued them all season? Can the Bucs keep Philly down and pull the home upset? Let's dive in at what to look out for in prime time Monday night.

Here are three things to watch for when the Eagles visit the Buccaneers during Super Wild Card Weekend:

1) Can Baker Mayfield, Bucs offense take advantage of struggling Eagles D? Mayfield has struggled the past two weeks while battling injuries but played his best during Tampa's four-game win streak to take the division lead. The QB set career highs with 4,044 passing yards and 28 touchdowns in 2023 (both top 10 in the NFL). He has the targets in Chris Godwin and Mike Evans to make life miserable for a struggling Eagles secondary. There will be opportunities for the Bucs to splash big plays if the offensive line gives Mayfield time. Evans earned the second-most deep receiving TDs (7) in the NFL in 2023 (behind Tyreek Hill: 8). Mayfield has shown moxie leading the Bucs to the postseason, including some tough, timely runs. He'll need to continue his best season to have January success. Meanwhile, the Eagles defense has allowed 300-plus passing yards in seven games (most in the NFL) and three-plus passing TDs in six tilts in 2023 (tied for most). Moving from Sean Desai to Matt Patricia as defensive play-caller down the stretch did nothing to stem the tide, as Philly's pass rush couldn't cover for a banged-up secondary. Philadelphia ended the season with 43 sacks, tied for 19th in the league. Contrast that with last season's franchise-record 70 sacks. If the Eagles can't pressure Mayfield on Monday, it could be another long night for the defense.

2) Will Philly's up-and-down offense right the ship? Star wide receiver A.J. Brown will not play after suffering a knee injury in Week 18, while Jalen Hurts is off the injury report after dealing with the aftermath of a dislocated middle finger on his throwing hand. With Brown sidelined, will the Eagles find a level of execution we haven't seen in the past month and a half? As the Eagles got off to a 10-1 record to open the season, Hurts generated 245.2 yards per game with 18 TD passes and 10 INTs for a 94.9 passer rating. From Weeks 13-18, as Philly went 1-5, those numbers dipped to 193.5 pass YPG, 5 TDs and 5 INTs for a 77.6 passer rating. After racking up six straight games with 125-plus receiving yards early in the season, Brown has been slowed. He hasn't generated 100-plus yards since Week 12 and has three tilts below 60 yards in that span. The Pro Bowler hasn't caught a TD since Week 11, but his absence remains massive. In Week 3 against Tampa, Brown generated 131 yards on nine catches. Nick Sirianni should turn to the ground game to cure the Eagles' ills in the playoffs, especially with Brown unavailable. In Week 3, D'Andre Swift galloped for 130 rushing yards as Philadelphia generated 201 yards on the ground. That was the last time Swift surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark this season. The Bucs' D ranked 24th in average rush EPA allowed this season, per Next Gen Stats, and gave up 100-plus yards on the ground in each of its final two games -- including big gashes in Week 18 against Carolina (131 yards). The Eagles should come out attempting to establish Swift and the ground attack Monday night, especially with Hurts ailing.

3) Eagles offensive line versus Bucs defense. Philly's offense might be camped in Strugglesville, but it still boasts the top offensive line in the NFL, highlighted by Pro Bowlers Jason Kelce, Lane Johnson and Landon Dickerson. The Eagles' ability to control the line of scrimmage Monday will be the key to the contest. As noted, the Eagles ran over Tampa in Week 3 with the O-line opening big holes and allowing just three tackles for loss. How the group combats the Bucs' pass rush will be critical in game. Bucs rookie YaYa Diaby has surged down the stretch, giving Tampa's edge much-needed oomph and leading the Buccaneers with 7.5 sacks. In passing situations, Bowles is sure to bring the heat on Hurts. Tampa blitzed at a 41.8 percent rate in 2023, the third highest in the NFL. In Week 3, the defense blitzed on 61% of Hurts' dropbacks, the most by the Bucs this season. It worked that night, as Hurts went 13 of 23 for 152 yards, two INTs and a 40.5 passer rating against the blitz (10 of 14 for 125 yards, a TD and a 122.6 rating with no blitz). For the season, Hurts has generated a 61.1 percent completion percentage, a 6-8 TD-INT ratio and a 74.7 passer rating versus the blitz. If Tampa can pressure Hurts into mistakes, it could produce tide-turning turnovers that could swing the contest.

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