It was always this game.
Not the Saints. Not the Eagles. Not the Steelers.
When the NFL released the Bucs’ schedule in April, the Browns were an afterthought. The first three games were the main attraction. If Tampa Bay could survive the opening stretch, the thinking went, it might contend for a playoff spot. The rest of the schedule wasn’t as daunting. But there are no free passes in the NFL. Any game can change the course of a season — and, every so often, the direction of a franchise. Especially when that game is against the Browns.
Think that’s an exaggeration? From 2015 to 2017, four teams lost to the Browns: the Titans, Ravens, 49ers and Chargers. Three of them ended up firing their head coach. The Chargers were so ashamed that they not only fired their coach but also packed up and left San Diego.
That’s what’s at stake Sunday. If the Bucs win, they improve to 3-3 and their next game becomes the most important one of the season. We’ll talk about it for a day or two, and then we’ll move on. Because that’s what we do when the expected happens. If they lose? The fallout might not be immediately apparent, but when we’re sorting through the rubble at the end of the season, this will be the game we’ll talk about. This will be the game that triggered an explosion.
This time last year — almost to the day — I wrote about the Bucs’ and Bills’ playoff droughts. They were among the eight teams stranded outside Club Playoffs. It’s not an exclusive club. It’s easy to sneak into. You don’t even have to be very good at football. As commissioner/bouncer Roger Goodell once said, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Take the Bills, for example. They beat the Bucs and finished 9-7, but they allowed 57 more points than they scored. Their 17-season wait ended anyway. By point differential, they were the worst team to reach the playoffs since Tim Tebow’s 2011 Broncos.
The Jaguars, Titans and Rams, who had waited a combined 29 seasons, also finally got invited to the postseason. That leaves four teams standing on their toes and craning their necks, hoping to one day get to the other side of the velvet rope — the Browns (waiting 15 seasons), Bucs (10), the Bears (seven) and Jets (seven).
The Bears already have jumped the Bucs in line. The Bears! The team whose single greatest contribution to the NFL in recent seasons had been Jay Cutler memes. The team the Bucs had thumped two straight seasons. That team. They did more than jump in front of the Bucs. They embarrassed them in 48-10 laugher in Week 4.
It’s bad enough to be passed by a team that, in the span of three seasons, went from Cutler to Brian Hoyer to Matt Barkley to Mike Glennon to Mitchell Trubisky. But the Browns? The Browns that tanked? The Browns that paid $16 million for a second-round draft pick? The Browns that won only one game in two seasons?
Not long ago, the Bucs were the Browns. Coaches used to get fired for losing to Tampa Bay, too. In 1977, the Bucs snapped a 26-game losing streak by beating the Saints and Cardinals. Afterward, New Orleans fired Hank Stram and St. Louis fired Don Coryell.
As for tanking, the Bucs did that before the Browns. In Week 17 of the 2014 season, Tampa Bay, leading New Orleans 20-7, benched its starters during the second half. “I was gassed,” receiver Mike Evans said. The Bucs lost 23-20 but won the No. 1 overall draft pick.
That pick turned out to be Jameis Winston, who was more than a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. He represented hope. Three years later, hope has given way to dread. Hope these days comes not in the form of players but in the form of scapegoats. See Smith, Mike.
Remember how you felt Nov. 22, 2015, the day Winston threw five touchdown passes in a 45-17 rout of the Eagles? The Bucs improved to 5-5 and for the first time in two seasons had won consecutive games. “The Bucs — the Bucs! — are now legitimate playoff contenders,” I wrote after the game.
The Browns are not yet playoff contenders, but in Baker Mayfield, also a Heisman Trophy winner, they’re feeling the hope that the Bucs felt three years ago, the hope the Bucs are trying to reclaim today. Though the Browns have won only two of their first six games, the arrow is pointing up. The Bucs, meanwhile, are directionless. They’ve started 2-3 in every season since 2015, coach Dirk Koetter’s first with the organization. The odds of them making the playoffs this season (15.9 percent) are about the same as them landing a top 5 pick in next year’s draft (19.5 percent).
The Bucs cannot let the Browns cut in line Sunday. A loss — at home, against a rookie quarterback — would completely invalidate the organization’s rebuilding efforts. That it’s even possible is damning in itself.
What to watch for
Jameis Winston vs. the blitz: On defense, the Browns like to bring the heat, or at least they like to try to. Cleveland blitzes quarterbacks on 37.8 percent of their dropbacks, the second-highest rate (Arizona, 38.1 percent). Blitzes don’t always result in pressure, however, and the Browns are generating pressure at a slightly higher rate than the Bucs, which is another way of saying “not often.”
Chances are Cleveland’s aggressiveness won’t rattle Winston. In general, he performs about as well against defenses that blitz as he does against defenses that don’t blitz. While he tends to complete a higher percentage of passes when not blitzed, he has a better touchdown-to-interception ratio when blitzed.
|When not blitzed||63.7%||7.5||4.8%||3.3%||1.5||88.8|
Running back Duke Johnson and the “wheel” route: The Bears used this concept, in which a receiver breaks to the outside and then runs down the sideline, to burn the Bucs defense a few weeks ago.
The Browns haven’t featured Johnson, a dual-threat speedster, very much (33 touches), but that could change soon given Cleveland’s lack of depth at receiver and its trade Friday of Carlos Hyde. Averaging 11.7 yards per catch this season, Johnson is the playmaker the Browns already have but haven’t been using enough. He can line up out wide as a receiver, but he also can run those wheel routes that have given the Bucs so much trouble.
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Key matchup: Bucs receivers Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries vs. Browns cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun
With Gerald McCoy (calf injury) and Vinny Curry (ankle injury) out, the Bucs will be missing half of their starting defensive line. While that’s certainly cause for concern, the Browns won’t be at full strength, either. They’ve been hit with injuries at receiver, linebacker and especially cornerback, where a concussion will sideline E.J. Gaines, who had been starting in place of Terrance Mitchell. That means the trio of rookie Denzel Ward, T.J. Carrie and Briean Boddy-Calhoun will be tasked with containing one of the NFL’s most potent passing attacks. Ward and Carrie will be the starting outside cornerbacks, with Boddy-Calhoun sliding inside.
Boddy-Calhoun played 62 snaps in Cleveland’s opener against Pittsburgh but has played only 39 snaps since. He’ll likely work against Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries, two of the Bucs’ most reliable targets over the middle. When running routes from the slot (the area between the offensive line and the outside receiver), Godwin has caught 6 of 9 passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. Humphries has caught 11 of 16 passes for 151 yards and no touchdowns.
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This is a strength-on-strength matchup. The Bucs’ strength is the pass offense; the Browns’ strength is their pass defense. Cleveland’s mounting injuries tilt the odds in Tampa Bay’s favor. The pick: Bucs 31, Browns 20.
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.