In his Bleacher Report Video Essay, NFL Pretenders and Contenders After Week 9, Aaron Nagler, NFL National Lead Writer, labels the Tampa Bay Buccaneers "Contenders" for an NFL Playoff spot.
With all due respect to Mr. Nagler's experience and knowledge as an NFL writer, I believe it is premature, if not an outright error, to label the Buccaneers as "contenders" at this juncture.
I found this video report all too typical of new sports media: heavy on the "rah-rah" and light on analysis.
Right now, Doug Martin appears to be the steal of the 2012 draft. However, with only Martin demonstrating effectiveness in the rushing attack, the question of his ability to hold up for another eight weeks will remain unanswered until the season ends in January.
And granted, Josh Freeman, Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Tiquan Underwood and Erik Lorig are starting to click in the passing game with Dallas Clark coming on. However, the Bucs' passing game remains a work in progress that will likely take another full season of work to be fully installed.
While the offensive line appears to have overcome the devastating losses of Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks, that's based on one data point, one game. As with Martin’s durability over a long season, the offensive line must sustain the success it enjoyed against Oakland for eight more long weeks.
Offensively, the Buccaneers remain a work in progress, with many unanswered questions, potential holes to be filled (a solid backup for Martin) and a system that remains to be fully installed. Plus, they may still find themselves facing a team that has solved the riddle of stopping Martin, while shutting down Freeman’s shots downfield to Jackson and Williams.
Defensively, the Bucs are leading the league in rushing defense, giving up a miserly 77.2 YPG, but that is the lone defensive bright spot.
At the same time, the Bucs are the worst pass defense in the league, giving up 321.1 YPG, in what most argue is a "pass-happy" league. In addition, the Bucs stand at 26th in the league with a paltry 13 sacks. Obviously, the lack of pressure on the quarterback, hurries and knockdowns notwithstanding, contributes to the poor showing on pass defense.
During the second half of the season, the Buccaneers will play Atlanta, with Matt Ryan and the Falcons' eighth-ranked passing attack, twice. Tampa's advantage in these games lies in its top-ranked rush defense, which is capable of shutting down Atlanta's 25th-ranked rushing attack and making the Falcons one-dimensional.
Still Tampa's 32nd-ranked pass defense will have to at least slow down Ryan and company through the air, if Freeman and his big receivers are to have a chance of winning in two games that will likely become shootouts.
Tampa will also see the Broncos with a surging Payton Manning at the helm, and the always dangerous (though currently "down") Chargers with Phillip Rivers.
The Buccaneers could easily go 0-4 through the Falcon, Broncos and Chargers games, but 4-0 seems a stretch, as in my opinion, Tampa will have to bring its A-Game to go 2-2 in this stretch.
The Bucs will also see the Saints and Drew Brees, plus the Panthers and Cam Newton. Although New Orleans and Carolina are down this season, neither can be counted out with Brees and Newton on the field and facing Tampa’s porous pass defense.
Because the Panthers want revenge for a Week 1 loss to Tampa and the Buccaneers undoubtedly want revenge for a Week 7 loss to New Orleans, I see these games as a 1-1 split for the Bucs.
Tampa’s best second-half matchups are with Philadelphia, a team in disarray, and St. Louis, a team in a rebuilding year. While both teams are dangerous, Tampa should be able to carve out a 2-0 record in these games.
Overall, the second half could wind up 5-3, giving Tampa a 9-7 record and a shot at a Wild-Card berth in the playoffs. The second half could, however, just as easily wind up 4-4 or 3-5, if things don't fall just right and the pass defense is torched like it was during the first half of the season.
Facing Manning, Ryan, Brees and Newton in five of the eight second-half games increases the likelihood of the pass defense getting burned.
Clearly, the Buccaneers have more holes than a block of Swiss Cheese and more question marks than a class in quantum physics; too many holes and questions to rise to contender status on the basis of a 3-1 second quarter of the season.
As a Buccaneers fan, I’m hoping for the 4-4 second half and an 8-8 record for the season. However, as an analyst (albeit amateur) I see 2-4 or 3-5 with a final season record of 6-10 or 7-9 as much more likely than a playoff contender run.