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Eagles beat writers make their predictions for playoff game against Buccaneers
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Eagles beat writers make their predictions for playoff game against Buccaneers

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady in action during an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, in Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Eagles have a rematch on the road Sunday against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs.

Here are the game predictions from the Inquirer’s Eagles beat writers:

Jeff McLaneI won’t go heavy into personnel and Xs and Os here. It’s pretty simple, in my mind, what the Eagles need to do if they are to upset Tom Brady and Co. and it starts up front. On defense, limit early-down runs, and when the quarterback does drop, disrupt his rhythm. It’s virtually impossible to keep the Tampa passing attack in check, but containing Brady can be done several ways. Jonathan Gannon just needs to create some pre-snap doubt in Brady’s head with his disguises, and post-snap with exotic pressures.

If the defense can limit long-sustaining drives, the offense should be able to help keep the ball out of Brady’s hands with their rejuvenated run game. Right tackle Lane Johnson didn’t play in the first meeting, and he’s an obvious upgrade on the line. I have a little concern about running back health with Miles Sanders (hand) and Jordan Howard (stinger). Jalen Hurts (ankle) was also still on the injury report. But the quarterback looks more comfortable in the pocket than he did three months ago. He’ll get opportunities to throw downfield, and he should take them.

The Eagles have leaders on both sides of the ball — Jason Kelce and Johnson on offense and Fletcher Cox and Rodney McLeod on defense — who have plenty of playoff experience. The young-ins can’t get caught up in the moment or staring at Brady’s seven rings. He’s the best ever but isn’t infallible. If the Eagles can execute the above, and my feeling is they will, it should be a relatively tight contest. They haven’t played a top team nor a top quarterback in a long time, though. If they come out slow, like they’ve done against lesser teams over the last month, the Bucs are likely to pounce and that could be all she wrote. But I think the Eagles have enough in the trenches to compete. Even so, I can’t pick against Brady.

Prediction: Buccaneers 30, Eagles 23

EJ SmithSince these two teams last played each other, the Eagles’ arrow has pointed upward and Tampa’s has gone slightly downward. Is it enough to bridge the gap?

The Buccaneers’ 28-22 win at the Linc earlier this season wasn’t as close as the score might suggest. Tampa Bay got out to a 28-7 lead in the third quarter and coasted to the finish line as the Eagles’ last gasp fell short. The biggest things I remember from the first matchup were the Tampa Bay linebackers thwarting the zone-read aspect of the Eagles’ run game and the Philadelphia linebackers giving up too many yards after contact to Leonard Fournette.

Fournette has missed the last three games but has a chance to return from a hamstring injury in time for Sunday. There is some good news for the Eagles: Star receiver Chris Godwin, who had five catches for 43 yards in the first matchup, won’t play this time around. The bad news: Tom Brady is still running the show, and he still has Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski. The Eagles’ defense has improved statistically since the first meeting, but Brady is leagues ahead of any quarterback the starting group has faced in months.

Offensively, the Eagles will need to find an answer to the Buccaneers scraping linebackers to the weakside to account for Jalen Hurts keeping the ball on zone reads. Containing Hurts to 44 yards on 10 carries, it’s fair to say Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles had one of the better approaches to the Eagles’ run game all season. Sunday will be a chess match between Bowles and Eagles coach Nick Sirianni. Finding a way to sustain the dominant rushing attack that’s propelled the Eagles to the playoffs will be pivotal. I’m not saying it’s impossible for Hurts to win this game with his arm, but it’s much harder to imagine that being the case.

The Eagles have steadily improved this season, and there’s enough progress to suggest they’ll be competitive in this game. But, honestly, do you trust this defense to get the greatest quarterback of all time off the field in a pivotal moment?

Prediction: Buccaneers 31, Eagles 27

Josh Tolentino

Jonathan Gannon has floated around in recent days as a hot candidate for some of the vacant head coach openings across the league. The first-year Eagles defensive coordinator deserves credit for his ability and willingness to adjust to the team’s personnel, which still needs to be addressed and improved in the offseason. Early on, there were multiple players — from Fletcher Cox to Darius Slay — who were asked to play outside of their comfort zones. Gannon eventually found a middle ground and combined his scheme and personnel, and the defense climbed the league’s rankings over the back end of the season.

Still, Gannon has yet to quiet elite quarterbacks. During the first meeting between the Bucs and Eagles, future first-ballot Hall of Famer Tom Brady diced through the Eagles’ defense, completing more than 80% of his passes. The Eagles don’t blitz much — third-least percentage in the league — and Brady has seen it all, so it would be foolish to imagine Gannon turns that pressure notch up now. It’ll likely come down to the defense making plays in the intermediate passing game and limiting the NFL’s most efficient offense. If the defense can force a turnover or two and keep it a manageable game until the fourth quarter, the unit will give Jalen Hurts and Co. an opportunity to strike.

Offensively, Nick Sirianni can’t get too cute with his play-calling. If he relies on the running game and allows the offensive line to set that tone, the Eagles will have a chance. A lot will also depend on the health of Miles Sanders, who is ramping up to return from his broken hand injury. We also witnessed last week Hurts and Sirianni can force feed wide receiver DeVonta Smith when they want to. In the passing game, Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert must lead the team in targets. Those two playmakers can supplement the potent rushing attack if Sirianni plays his cards right.

The guess here is the Eagles keep things closer than expected, but Brady’s GOAT factor is too much to overcome for Gannon’s defense.

Prediction: Buccaneers 27, Eagles 21

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