Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, a look at the five teams most likely to prevent a Buccaneers repeat ...
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady is in the most rarified air as a player thanks to a résumé that includes seven Super Bowl wins, three MVP awards and a host of all-time records.
However, he now has the opportunity to lead his second NFL team into legendary company, as the 9-3 Bucs -- currently the third seed in the NFC -- have their eyes on winning a second straight title.
With a victory in Super Bowl LVI, Tampa Bay would join the Packers (1966-67), Dolphins (1972-73), Steelers (1974-75 and 1978-79), 49ers (1988-89), Cowboys (1992-93), Broncos (1997-98) and Brady's Patriots (2003-04) as repeat champions. Brady and Co. have a chance to become the gold standard in an ultra-competitive league that has shown the world how hard it is to maintain consistent excellence.
While there are still plenty of games to play before we reach the end of the 2021 season -- and no team has clinched a playoff berth just yet -- the rarity of pulling off a repeat makes me want to skip a few chapters of the book to see which teams could emerge as the biggest threats to the Bucs' title chances down the road.
Given a little time to break down the tape and study the potential matchups on the horizon, here are the five teams who pose the biggest threat to Tampa Bay's hopes of winning two titles in a row:
The Bucs might have won the Week 4 matchup against New England, but the rematch could be a different story. The Patriots have won eight of their nine games since losing to Tampa Bay while embracing an old-school identity that can make them a nightmarish opponent for any team. Against the Bucs, in particular, the Pats' chameleon-like defense has the capacity to frustrate Brady with a variety of looks and disruptive tactics. Remember, the all-time great was limited to 22-of-43 passing for 269 yards with no touchdowns when the two teams met on a rainy Sunday night in October. In addition, Mac Jones' efficient play from the pocket could thwart DC Todd Bowles' blitz tactics with the rookie firing off quick passes and screens before the pass rush gets home. With the Patriots willing and able to employ various keep-away tactics via their clock management and kicking game strategies, Tampa Bay should not want to see Brady's former team in a Super Bowl matchup.
The Bird Gang has become one of the most physical teams in football with a blitz-centric defense complementing a dynamic offense. The Cardinals are one of the few teams in the league with the capacity to engage in shootouts or grind-it-out affairs against top competition. That flexibility makes them a tough matchup for a Bucs team that also is capable of winning with different styles. The Cardinals could opt to air it out with Kyler Murray distributing the ball to a crew of all-star pass-catchers against a defense that lacks elite defenders on the island. If Arizona is able to play with a lead, the ultra-aggressive pressure packages that defensive Vance Joseph has utilized to crush opponents this season could make life miserable for Tampa Bay.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid would probably love to run it back against Tampa Bay in Super Bowl LVI, giving Kansas City a chance to make amends for its poor performance in last season's title game. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs' five-star playmakers are better prepared to deal with the Bucs' zone-heavy tactics after facing two-deep coverage extensively this season. Defensively, the Chiefs seem to be peaking at the right time -- they've allowed 17 points or fewer in each of the last five games -- and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has had success against TB12 in the past. The emotional edginess from a desire to issue payback could work in Kansas City's favor this time around. Moreover, the Chiefs' experience with close games and low-scoring contests should serve them well against the defending champs with the Lombardi Trophy on the line.
Despite a recent three-game losing streak during a stretch of facing hard-hitting squads, the Rams are a tough potential opponent for the Bucs. Los Angeles has won its previous two meetings against Tampa Bay with Brady at the helm, including a Week 3 game this season. The confidence gained from those victories could make another matchup problematic for Bruce Arians' squad. Matthew Stafford torched Bowles' defense on Sept. 26 (343 pass yards and four touchdowns) and he might be able to top that total in a rematch with the Rams' wideouts enjoying a significant advantage on the perimeter. The L.A. defense has the potential to create headaches for Brady with Aaron Donald spearheading a pass rush effort that features limited blitzing and maximum coverage in the back end. Considering Sean McVay's success against Brady's Bucs, the Rams would undoubtedly feel good about their chances against the reigning champions.
Don't laugh at the sight of the Cowboys being included on this list despite their recent struggles. America's Team has a collection of all-stars with the talent and swagger to take the defending champions down in a win-or-go-home scenario in the postseason. Dallas has the potential to attack Tampa Bay with a hard-nosed ground game and a dynamic aerial attack. Dak Prescott showed his ability to carve up Bowles' defense back in Week 1, and that could be problematic for the Bucs with injuries impacting their secondary. Defensively, Dan Quinn is familiar with Arians from their previous battles in the NFC South when he was the leader of the Falcons. That intelligence and experience could serve the Cowboys' defensive coordinator well as he puts together a game plan to throttle the Brady-led unit in a rematch. The Cowboys have certainly suffered some head-scratching losses recently, but their exceptional talent gives them a chance to win against the defending champs.
What about the Packers?
At the risk of losing my #GoPackGo membership, I did not include the Packers in my list of the top five threats to the Bucs' mission to repeat. While Green Bay is a legitimate title contender, the matchup is not a great one for Aaron Rodgers and Co.
The Bucs beat up the Packers twice last season, including a 38-10 whipping in the regular season that featured a dominant performance from the defensive line. The situation could be worse this time around with injuries taking a major toll on the offensive line (Josh Myers and Elgton Jenkins on injured reserve; David Bakhtiari working to return from injury). With the injury bug also impacting key members of the pass rush (Za'Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus on IR) and coverage units (Jaire Alexander returned to practice this week after being out since Week 4), the short-handed Packers do not stack up well against the defending champs.
Buffalo's fatal flaw on prime-time display
I just explained why the Packers aren't among the biggest threats to the Buccaneers in the section above, but some readers might've taken issue with another omission from that list: the Bills.
Buffalo entered this season with plenty of hype. Fresh off the franchise's first AFC Championship Game appearance in 27 years, the Bills were a trendy Super Bowl pick in the fall, especially when they started the season at 4-1. But they've gone 3-4 since, with a road game against the reigning champion Bucs looming on Sunday. And this past Monday's wind-whipped loss to the Patriots put a glaring spotlight on my biggest issue with this team ...
The Bills cannot be considered legitimate title contenders until they are able to run the ball and stop the run.
While traditionalists will understand my proclamation based on how football is played in the postseason, many optimists in Western New York undoubtedly remain bullish on their wide-open style producing the organization's first Lombardi Trophy.
I'm sure Bills fans with fond memories of Jim Kelly and the "K-Gun" offense embrace the fast-break attack. But the pass-heavy approach will not produce wins in the playoffs, when the game routinely morphs into a 9-on-7 drill (running-game exercise featuring nine defenders against seven offensive players, including the offensive line, tight ends and running backs).
The Bills rank 14th in rushing yards per game (116.7) with quarterback Josh Allen accounting for 30.1 percent (35.2 rush yards per game) of the output. Although No. 17 is a spectacular playmaker and scrambler, Buffalo cannot rely on Allen to carry such a hefty ground load. The Bills need a running back to serve as a reliable primary ball-carrier, and it would help if the RB1 had enough size to move the pile against physical defenses.
With Devin Singletary (41.3 rush YPG) and Zack Moss (28.6 rush YPG) weighing around 200 pounds, Buffalo's running game lacks the thump needed to excel in January, when physicality ramps up. The team's reliance on scatbacks puts too much pressure on Allen to handle short-yardage/goal-line duties. Sure, the 6-foot-5, 237-pounder boasts the second-most passing and rushing touchdowns (121 -- 93 throwing, 28 rushing) of any player in NFL history through four seasons, but the Bills cannot impose their will on opponents with a scrambling quarterback leading the way in the ground attack.
In Monday night's home loss to New England, Buffalo running backs carried the ball 19 times for 60 yards, producing a measly 3.2 yards per carry. Buffalo coach Sean McDermott knows it's a problem -- one that might not have an immediate solution.
"We're gonna try our darndest to fix it. It's tough. I'm not gonna sit up here and lie to you guys. To fix that part of your game this time of year is tough," McDermott said after the loss, via Syracuse.com. "That's why we try like heck to do it in training camp. That's where you develop the toughness of the football team. That's why we run the football in training camp."
To put it bluntly, the Bills' offense comes off as soft -- and finesse doesn't win in the playoffs.
Similar things could be said about the Bills' defense. On Monday night, the Patriots continued a trend in which physical teams have been able to bludgeon the unit on the ground. Over the past two months, the Titans (146 rush yards), Colts (264!) and Patriots (222) have flexed their muscles on Leslie Frazier's group with a steady diet of off-tackle runs that exploited Buffalo's lack of physicality, toughness and gap discipline. The Bills have been unable to stop the run despite knowing their opponents' intentions, and that is quite problematic for the team going forward. In the playoffs, the rushing attack is essential to control the game and run out the clock in the fourth quarter. If the Bills are incapable of stopping the run, they will not be able to dictate the terms to opposing offenses by creating long-yardage situations. Moreover, they will not be able to get off the field, keeping the NFL's fifth-ranked scoring offense on the sideline.
The Bills have been touted as Super Bowl contenders due to a deep roster and a top-tier quarterback, but they will not compete for a title until they find a way to play "big boy football" by pounding the rock and stopping the run.
RAIDERS: Hunter Renfrow the new WR1?
I have been around the NFL long enough to know that No. 1 receivers come in all sizes and shapes, but I am surprised by Hunter Renfrow's emergence with the Las Vegas Raiders. The third-year pro leads the team in targets (92), receptions (73), receiving yards (760) and touchdown receptions (four) while also sporting a 79.3 percent catch rate.
With Renfrow posting back-to-back 100-yard games the last two weeks, it might be time to give the Raiders' top target his proper due as a legit No. 1 receiver. I know such a take is mind-boggling to some evaluators who viewed the 5-foot-10, 185-pounder as a WR4 based on his pedestrian workout numbers at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine (4.59-second 40-yard dash; 35-inch vertical jump; 116-inch broad jump), but the crafty receiver has found a way to get open on the perimeter.
Renfrow has a knack for setting defenders up with subtle head-and-shoulder fakes and creative releases as a route runner. He utilizes angles and a quick short-area burst to run away from defenders out of his breaks, and he shows reliable hands and superb ball skills as a pass-catcher. Despite his small hands (7 7/8 inches), Renfrow snatches the ball away from defenders on 50-50 balls, making him Derek Carr's favorite target in the clutch.
"I think Hunter and I have spent more time together than any receiver I've ever had on the field and off the field," Carr told the media Wednesday in his weekly press conference. "... Just the level of communication that we have, it's very high-level. It's one thing for me to go to him, or to a receiver, and be like, 'Hey, I need you to do it just like this.' And it's another thing for him to say OK and actually see it the same way on the field and do it. And he does it exactly how I need him to do it. And so, the trust is super high and the execution. It's one thing to do it, but I'm throwing it and he's making great plays.
"I think he's the best after-the-catch (receiver) in the NFL, if not one of the best. I think the first guy always misses and he's super hard to tackle, so you always want to get the ball in his hands. And to see him emerging as that guy, it doesn't surprise me at all."
The Raiders' season has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, but the emergence of Renfrow as a go-to target is a significant development for the team.
NFL's TOP TE: George Kittle makes case
The leaderboard is crowded at the top of the tight end chart with Travis Kelce, Darren Waller and George Kittle vying for the No. 1 spot. But make no mistake about it, Kittle is the NFL's best tight end when he is healthy.
Sure, Kelce is the only tight end in NFL history with five 1,000-yard seasons, but he is really a jumbo wideout with unique skills on the perimeter. The three-time All-Pro is a mismatch for linebackers and defensive backs with his superior size and skills enabling him to win against anyone in space.
Waller, who is currently sidelined by knee and back injuries, is also a supersized pass-catcher with wide receiver skills in an NBA power forward-like body. The Pro Bowler gets by linebackers as a quasi-wideout on the outside of spread formations, and his rare combination of speed and athleticism puts defenders in a bind when attempting to shadow him in space.
While both Kelce and Waller are elite players, Kittle is an upgrade at the position in nearly every aspect. No disrespect to the games of Kelce or Waller, but the 49ers' All-Pro tight end is special and reminded the football world of his greatness in a classic performance against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13.
The 6-foot-4, 250-pound playmaker snagged nine balls for 181 yards with a pair of scores that showcased his remarkable talents as a runner. Kittle skipped and scooted past the Seattle defense on a number of catches, including a 48-yard catch-and-run down the sideline that showed off his ballerina-like balance and body control. The extraordinary exhibition of running skills served as a reminder of his impact as a YAC (yards after catch) producer for a team that relies on catch-and-run plays to move the chains.
Although Kittle's receiving skills and running ability separate him from others at the position, he is the undisputed No. 1 tight end in the game due to his ability to block like an All-Pro offensive tackle. At a time when most tight ends are really deployed as oversized wideouts, Kittle is a hybrid with a mix of offensive tackle and wide receiver in his game. He destroys linebackers and safeties on the edges, giving 49ers running backs and receivers a chance to turn the corner on outside runs. Looking at the 49ers' success on the ground this season, it is not a coincidence that No. 85 is heavily involved in the running game.
Kelce and Waller are five-star talents. However, if I am building a franchise and need a tight end in the starting lineup, Kittle is the clear choice.