Tampa Bay vs. Denver: 5 Keys to the Game for the Buccaneers
The Bucs come in having won five of their last seven games, while the Broncos are winners of six straight contests.
Tampa Bay looks to keep their waning playoff aspirations alive, as a loss will severely hamper their ability to keep pace with the other contending teams of the NFC. The Bucs currently find themselves on the outside looking in, but are within striking distance of Seattle (6-5) for the final playoff spot
Conversely, thanks in large part to being in firm control of the AFC West, Denver finds itself as the fourth seed in the AFC, with a chance of catching second-seeded Baltimore (9-2) for one of two first-round byes in each conference.
Denver travels to Baltimore in two weeks.
With this in mind, here are five keys to the game for Bucs fans to keep an eye on come Sunday.
Win the Turnover Battle
Turnovers are always a critical element of a football game, but are even more so when you're the visiting team.
The Bucs (plus-11) enter Sunday's game as one of 14 teams with a positive turnover ratio this season. Denver, on the other hand, has a minus-three turnover ratio.
In fact, in Denver's three losses this season, they have a combined turnover ratio of minus-five. In their eight wins, they're plus-two.
For their part, the Bucs have done a remarkable job of protecting the football this season, particularly quarterback Josh Freeman, who has thrown just seven interceptions a season removed from a 22-interception campaign in 2011.
Avoid Field Goals, Score Touchdowns
The concept sounds simple and straight forward; applying it, on the other hand, is a lot easier said than done.
Denver boasts the NFL's eighth-best scoring defense, holding opponents to 20.1 points per game.
However, it's worth noting that in their three losses, the Broncos allowed an average of 29.6 points. In their eight wins, they allowed an average of 16.5 points.
What that tells me is for the Bucs to be successful against Denver, they are going to have to capitalize on red zone opportunities by punching them into the end zone.
Remember those three losses I mentioned above? They were against New England (37.0 points/game), Houston (29.7 points/game) and Atlanta (26.4 points/game). In other words, Denver has struggled against the NFL's elite offenses.
For what it's worth, Tampa's scoring offense is ranked fourth at 28.2 points per game.
Simply put, they cannot settle for field goals—touchdowns are a must.
Protect Josh Freeman
So, how can the Bucs succeed at scoring touchdowns, you ask? They can start by keeping their quarterback off his back.
Denver comes in as the NFL's best team at getting to opposing quarterbacks with 37 sacks.
Leading the way is second-year pass rush specialist Von Miller with 14 sacks, while defensive end Elvis Dumervil has eight sacks.
Do you recall those three Broncos losses I highlighted in the previous slide? Well in those losses, the Broncos sacked opposing quarterbacks just six times combined (two per game), meaning in their eight wins, they're averaging nearly four sacks per contest.
Put it this way: If Denver's track record is indicative of anything, it's that if the Bucs cannot protect Freeman, they will not win this game.
Establish the Ground Game
I know that I keep harping on their three losses, but it's for obvious reasons: those three teams exposed Denver's vulnerabilities.
One of those vulnerabilities is their rush defense.
The Patriots, Texans and Falcons rushed for an average of 156.7 yards in their games against Denver. The rest of Denver's opponents have averaged just 77 yards on the ground against them.
Rookie running back Doug Martin has rushed for 1,050 yards and nine touchdowns this season, although he appears to be slowing down, having rushed for just 256 yards combined over the last three games.
It's little surprise then that the Bucs have enjoyed their most success when Martin runs wild.
In their six wins, the "Muscle Hamster" has rushed for an average of 127.2 yards. In their five losses, he has averaged just 57.4 yards.
Keep Peyton Manning from Getting Comfortable in the Pocket
By now, everyone has a pretty good idea how bad the Tampa Bay pass defense has been this season.
They've allowed 51—yes, fifty one—plays of 20 or more yards and 10 plays of 40 or more yards. They've given up 18 passing touchdowns and a league-worst 315.5 passing yards per game.
Furthermore, five opposing quarterbacks they've faced this season have thrown for more than 330 yards against them: Eli Manning (510), Carson Palmer (414), Drew Brees (377), Matt Ryan (353) and Philip Rivers (337).
The Bucs lost three of those games.
Peyton Manning enters Sunday having thrown for 3,260 yards and 26 scores in 2012. Oh, and he's only been sacked 16 times.
While the Bucs secondary gets a lot of the blame for the poor pass defense, an equal amount of blame should be placed upon the defensive front.
Tampa Bay has just 18 sacks this season, with defensive end Michael Bennett leading the team with just seven sacks. In fact, four of their 18 sacks have come from blitzing players. Thus, their defensive line has accounted for just 14 sacks.
Or as many as Broncos linebacker Von Miller has by himself.
The Bucs will need to get after Peyton and keep pressure on him throughout the afternoon. Otherwise, Manning will bury the Bucs.