The Eagles aren't supposed to be here.
Philadelphia embarked on a fluid rebuild in the 2021 offseason, shipping former franchise quarterback Carson Wentz to Indianapolis and handing the keys to Jalen Hurts. No one knew quite what to expect from the Eagles in 2021 -- including their fans -- but first-year head coach Nick Sirianni has maximized his team's production, securing a wild-card playoff berth and a date with the defending champions.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, are very much supposed to be here. The Super Bowl LV victors have spent the 2021 season mounting a title defense, which has included an NFC South title and the No. 2 seed in the conference entering the postseason. At 44 years old, Tom Brady is as good as ever, finishing with the third-most passing yards and most completions in a single season in NFL history. He's in a tight race with Aaron Rodgers for NFL MVP, but that likely doesn't matter to Brady as much as his eighth ring.
The Eagles are the first hurdle between Brady and that piece of jewelry.
Tampa Bay and Philadelphia met way back in Week 6 on a Thursday night in Philadelphia. The Bucs ran out to a 28-7 lead before allowing the Eagles to creep within six points of them before time ran out.
Those Eagles were a bit different than their current form. They'll learn just how far they've come on Sunday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium.
Here are four things to watch when the Eagles travel to Tampa to face the Buccaneers:
- Will the Bucs stiff-arm the injury bug? Tampa Bay has felt the bite of this pesky insect on multiple occasions, losing multiple key contributors. Chris Godwin's season is over due to a knee injury. Running backs Leonard Fournette (hamstring) and Ronald Jones (ankle) may not be able to go, though Fournette was designated for return this week, as were RB Giovani Bernard (knee) and linebacker Lavonte David (foot). Brighter days could be ahead for the Bucs on the injury front, even after the departure of Antonio Brown, whose outburst and subsequent release forced the Bucs to temporarily replace him with Cyril Grayson (hamstring) before he too suffered an injury in Week 18. Much of the essential parts of the Buccaneers -- Rob Gronkowski, a stellar offensive line, Mike Evans -- should be ready to play this weekend. But will they get the others back in time for kickoff? And if they don't, can they remain as explosive as they've been for much of the 2021 season?
- Can Philadelphia keep things close? The Eagles seem to be built to find a path to victory -- or at least contention -- by relying on the league's top ground game and essentially playing keep-away from the Bucs' high-powered offense. The main issue arises when they don't have the ball, especially if they can't produce scoring drives early in the contest. Philadelphia owns the 10th-ranked defense and 11th-ranked pass defense, but is tied for 26th in turnovers. They might need a turnover or two to flip momentum in their favor on the road Sunday. A positive note: The Eagles are the second-best team at preventing big plays. Keeping everything in front of them, bending but not breaking, and relying on clock-eating offensive possessions might be their only chance of upsetting the Buccaneers.
- Will the Eagles prove their legitimacy? Philadelphia's run to the playoffs is a surprise to most everyone, especially considering where the Eagles were after Week 9. Sitting at 3-6, few gave Philadelphia a chance to reach the postseason, but it was at that moment the Eagles discovered their identity, morphing from a team that frustrated with its lack of commitment to the run to one that relied on the ground game, eventually becoming the league's best at running the ball. The wins followed, and the Eagles have lost just twice since Thanksgiving. Philadelphia travels to Tampa Bay with plenty of positive momentum, but is still 0-6 against playoff teams in the 2021 season. Is this the weekend the Eagles reverse their losing trend against true contenders? And does Jalen Hurts receive a big boost to his stock as a result?
- Is another Brady win over Philadelphia on his path to an eighth ring? Brady has met the Eagles twice in the postseason, with each coming in the Super Bowl. His Patriots downed Donovan McNabb's Eagles back in Super Bowl XXXIX, securing Brady's third title of his career, but Philadelphia enjoyed the sweet taste of revenge in the 2017 season by upsetting Brady's Patriots in Super Bowl LII. Sunday brings us the rubber match, with Brady sporting different colors and the clash coming well ahead of the Super Bowl. Brady hasn't lost a Super Bowl since falling to the Eagles, and in order to win his eighth, he'll have to go through Philadelphia. The greatest quarterback of all time certainly has the experience to get the job done, recording more playoff wins by himself than the Eagles have in the history of their franchise (Brady: 34; PHI: 23). He's also thrown for more playoff touchdowns than all Eagles QBs combined, owning an 83-60 advantage. He'll likely need a few more of those to keep his team's title defense going beyond Super Wild Card Weekend.
Next Gen stat of the matchup: Tom Brady has thrived with the quick-passing game, recording the lowest pressure rate of any qualified QB in the last five seasons. He's thrown 35 touchdown passes when not pressured in 2021, the second-most in the NFL behind only the Rams' Matthew Stafford. The Eagles, meanwhile, rank third in the NFL in QB pressure rate at 31.2%.
NFL Research: Sunday will be the first instance of a quarterback who started multiple Super Bowls against a single team going on to face that team again in the playoffs.