Tom Brady has seven Super Bowl rings. He has also enjoyed a repeat with the Patriots. Will he be able to lift the Lombardi Trophy again with the Buccaneers after Super Bowl 56?
The Packers and Chiefs are the favorites in the 2022 NFL playoffs, but the Buccaneers, as the second seed in the NFC, are right behind them. Tampa Bay won Super Bowl 55 as a wild card to end Brady’s first season there, but it all fell into place on his four-game winning streak. That will no doubt be difficult to duplicate against another strong field of contenders.
The Buccaneers also have their share of new challenges, balancing the advantage of having two home playoff games before the Super Bowl this time around. Here’s a breakdown of the five things that need to happen for Brady and Bucs to be a Big Eight like the GOAT:
Five keys for the Buccaneers to repeat in Super Bowl 56
The Buccaneers have been hit hard by injuries from end to end. The biggest overall is the season finale for wide receiver Chris Godwin (knee). They will enter the playoffs without running back Ronald Jones (ankle) and wide receiver Cyril Grayson (hamstring), who was to be a key replacement for the late Antonio Brown.
But his defense, since cornerbacks started slipping in Week 1 again with the Cwoboys, has had little time to be fully healthy. While his secondary is back at nearly full strength again, inside linebacker Lavonte David (foot) and outside linebackers Shaquil Barrett (knee) and Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder) missed action late in the regular season. All three are poised to return to the playoffs, once again giving the Bucs the deep, well-rounded unit that dominated the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55.
The Bucs’ calling card under Todd Bowles is their great work against the run, fueled by Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh. Linebackers are made to chase the quarterback to the edge, now powered by first-round rookie Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. David will help Devin White to be active in the middle in tackles and coverage.
Tampa Bay scored 31, 30, 31 and 31 points in its four playoff games last year. But you’re bound to see your score slow down a bit. The defense has been huge in its complementary football plan; but now he must be more of the tone-maker and catalyst in the quest to win four more playoff games.
2. Leonard Fournette and the running game remains strong
Here are the team’s rushing totals in the Tampa Bays’ four playoff games last year: 142, 127, 76 and 145. That 122.5-yard average was a 20-yard increase from the regular season. This season, the Buccaneers averaged 98.4 rushing yards per game, even closer to the bottom of the league.
A big reason for the hit was Fournette, their powerful lead running back, who became “Playoff Lenny.” The offensive line also delivered a huge stretch in that capacity. The Buccaneers need to pick up their running momentum again to take the pressure off Brady and set up game-friendly action shots down the field.
Jones may be willing to start, but second-year running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn may be ready to provide some fresh juice to change Fournette’s pace. While the Bucs have a pass-first, pass-often, pass-deep mentality with Brady, Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich, they also know “pass to score, run to win.” It should start against the Eagles, who have improved a lot since 2020 but have regressed of late.
3. Rob Gronkowski and Mike Evans put up big numbers in the playoffs
Godwin and Brown each had two key playoff performances last year. Gronkowski had a great Super Bowl, while Evans had a great wild card game. Now, from tight end and perimeter wide receiver, Gronkowski and Evans should be big factors, given that they’ll now be supplemented by Scotty Miller, Breshad Perriman, Tyler Johnson, Cameron Brate and maybe Grayson at some point. Gronkowski and Evans are massive targets who can stretch the field and also dominate with size and hands in the red zone.
Brady trashed the Panthers with plenty of Gronkowski and Evans in Week 18 as a tune-up statement. They will no doubt take turns attracting the attention of big coverage, whether it be a strong cover man or a double team. The Bucs need to do everything they can to open up against each other, inside and out. In the end, they’re not equipped to afford not to be a factor in any playoff game.
4. They receive more contributions from anonymous players
This makes Gronkowski and Evans stand out as Brady’s most reliable targets and Fournette the undisputed leader of the backfield. Those other running backs and receivers mentioned need to take advantage of favorable opportunities created by others. The defense will welcome additional contributions, led by Tryon-Shoyinka, outside linebacker Anthony Nelson and safety Mike Edwards.
The Bucs won as a complete team last year. Given all the talented teams in front of them, vying to dethrone them, they need a lot more from non-starters at critical moments.
5. They stick to their guns on third downs and in the red zone
The Buccaneers were second in the NFL to convert third downs in 2021. Their 47 percent rate was behind only the Chiefs.
The Buccaneers were also second in the NFL to convert in the red zone in 2021. Their 66 percent touchdown rate was behind only the 49ers.
Both numbers are tied to Brady’s prowess all over the field, his potential for big plays and having fans in the chain and finishers like Fournette, Gronkowski and Evans. They can’t loosen up less Godwin and Brown.
The Bucs have the blueprint last year and should know where they need to adjust again this year. But since they hunted with everyone else playing the hunter, they need to up their game everywhere from an already high level.