It's that time of year. Time to prognosticate on the upcoming season. One of the biggest problems I am having is the backside of the schedule, as I am finding it hard to see losses except for San Fran and NO, but I just can't see them going 7-1 or 6-2 down the stretch, at least not quite yet. I will say that, heading into the preseason, I felt that this team was an 8-8 team with breaks and injuries putting a margin of +/- 1 win. Now that I have actually seen the team in action, and focused in on the key match-ups and how certain players looked, I now have a different opinion.
Right now the defense appears to be the biggest question mark. I think the Bucs have clearly increased the talent level on this team, and the defense will likely be in high gear during the second half of the season. In fact, I would be shocked if they gave up more than 100 points in the final 8 games. The first 8 is going to be more iffy. The offense looks like it will be able to spread teams pretty effectively and I don't think it will take very long for Garcia to be able to regularly drive the offense for scores. Special teams looks to be about the same as last year.
So let's look at the games and how I think the Bucs will do based on what I've seen so far. As we get into the regular season, my Talking Plank may reflect a different result as the games come and go, but this is how things look to me right now.
The Bucs will come into this game with an offense that will surprise the Seahawks and be able to stretch them with numerous receiving targets. I expect to see Caddy get some big runs and a lot of action around a passing game that will be used roughly 60% of the time. The Bucs will score on the Seahawks' defense. Whether or not the Bucs' defense can stop the Seattle offense is another story, but there are changes along their offensive line, and that could play a factor in limiting Alexander and getting to Hasselbeck. In the end, the Bucs surprise the Seahawks and take a tight game.
After upsetting the Seahawks and coming back home to open things up with an emotional tribute to Alstott, the Bucs will get caught a little flat footed against the Saints, with the defense finding it hard to keep the Saints out of the endzone on a consistent basis. The Bucs offense will score a good amount of points, but the rebuilt defense, still learning to work together and get the rookies up to speed, will let them down.
After loosing in the home opener, the Bucs will regroup and find a way to shore up their defense some. It will be tough sledding against the potent Rams' offense, but the defense will come up with some key turnovers and stops to keep the Rams out of the endzone at times. The offense, on the other hand, will have a field day against the Rams' defense. I expect to see Caddy running for a lot of yards and for Garcia to hit numerous receivers while hitting 3 or 4 TD passes. In the end, the Bucs offense, with that solid offensive line, will put up the points and send the Rams home losers.
After a convincing win against the Rams, the Bucs will head up to Carolina to play their much hated rivals, the Panthers. With Carolina having issues with its offense, the Bucs defense will be able to keep the Panthers from putting up the points. They'll give up some yards, but the Bucs pick happy secondary, with Sabby and Jackson playing most of the time at Safety now, will cause turnovers just when it looks like the Panthers will move the ball into scoring position. The Bucs' offensive line will have its hands full with the Panthers' DL, but, for the first time, the Bucs OL will be able to hang and keep the heat off Garcia for most, but not all, of the game. That will be just enough for him to use his weapons and get a couple of scores in a defensive slug fest. In the end, the Bucs will choke up victory number 3.
After getting the season off to a solid 3-1 start, the Bucs will travel to Indy and face a tough game in a hostile environment. While the Colts' defense looks pretty poor, their offense will be hard to stop with any consistency. The Bucs will score on this defense, and will do so quite often. In fact the possibility of an upset is there, and I might even pick the Bucs if it was here at Ray Jay, but the defense is just going to have too hard of a time trying to stop that potent Indy offense in the dome. In the end, Indy's offense is just too much.
After a tough road loss, the Bucs come up needing to right the defensive ship to deal with Vince Young. Thankfully, that's pretty much all they have to gear up to stop. The Bucs defense will start to show that they are coming together by having one of their most impressive outings, shutting Vince down and making it tough for the Titans to score. The Bucs offense will have a solid day against the Titans' defense and we'll see Caddy leading the way as the Bucs try to keep Young off the field. In the end, the Bucs will be the better team and will win this home game.
The Bucs travel to Detroit to face Marinelli and Calvin Johnson. The Lions, who look to be improved in many areas, will be a tough team to beat, as they always are when these two teams play. After the emotional roller coaster of the last couple of weeks, the Bucs look to be down slightly heading into this game, and I expect the defense to have problems consistently keeping the Lions' receivers from getting open. The pressure will be there, but just enough big plays will keep the Lions' offense going enough to score. The Bucs' offense should be able to get some things done against the Lions' defense, but it will be a tough game, and the offense will have some key mistakes and fail to get into the endzone when they need to. The Bucs fall in this one.
Having lost to Detroit on the road, the Bucs get the privilege of coming home to face the Jaguars. The Bucs have historically had huge problems dealing with the size of the Jags. In this game, the Bucs' offensive line will hold up much better than in past contests and the offense will find ways to move the ball and score, but it will be tough. The Bucs' defense will have to try to defend a powerful Jags attack, and will have problems stopping them at times. While the Bucs will match-up much better than in the past, they will still struggle to keep the Jags out of the endzone. The defense will be starting to look dominate at times, but a couple of long drives doom them, as well as fortuitous field position for the Jags.
With the first half over, and the Bucs at .500, they get a break by going into the "easy" half of their schedule at the same time that the defense is starting to dominate on a more consistent basis. The Cardinals will come in with a decent offense, but it won't be able to do anything against a strong defensive effort that is a sign of things to come. The Bucs offense will also be displaying its capabilities against a decent defense. The end result will be a strong win by the Bucs.
The Bucs finally get into the heart of the division schedule with 4 division games in the last 7. Atlanta is the first team up to bat in the second half of the season, and the Bucs are ready to take it to them. The Atlanta offense will run into a very opportunistic defense that will take advantage of Falcon mistakes. The running game will be shutdown without Vick to open the lanes up. The Bucs' offense will also find the Falcons' defense to be less capable in years past with all the key losses they've suffered. In the end, the Bucs will simply be too much for the Falcons.
The Redskins are back, but the Bucs are better. The Redskins' offense will have a tough time getting the running game established this time around as the defense will be bigger and faster than the one the Redskins last faced. The Bucs' offense will also be able to move the ball pretty effectively against a defense that never seems to get its act together. Once again the Bucs will win and take their record up to 7-4 with 3 straight wins.
At New Orleans:
Just when the Bucs were on a roll, they go on the road and make some critical mistakes. While the Saints offense will find the sledding much harder the second time around, the Bucs offense will also. A tight game in a loud dome will go to the home team, and the Bucs will be swept by the Saints who are battling the Bucs to win the division.
The Bucs will travel to Houston hoping to rack up one one of their last two road games and avoid a two game losing streak. The team, however, will come out a little flat and have issues executing on both sides of the ball. The Bucs will score easily on some drives, then screw up on others. The defense will be effective, but a couple of blown plays will let the Texans secure the winning points via a FG fest. This game is, however, a wild car in my mind. It could easily go the Bucs' way and lead to an additional win on my predicted season result, but I think the Bucs are going to lose a game they should clearly win, and this one is it.
After two straight losses, and with a division foe coming to town, the Bucs shape up in a hurry. The Bucs will just absolutely dominate the Falcons in a game that reminds many of the late season home game in 2002. The Bucs offense will make scoring look easy while the defense will shutdown the Falcons' offense. The defense will cause a get a couple of picks and maybe a caused fumble or two. The Bucs will win a division game that keeps them just one back of the Saints.
At San Francisco:
The Bucs will make their second dreaded West Coast swing to go play the 49ers. While the Bucs will look to be the better team, the WC trip will get them again in a place they have had virtually no success. The 49ers offense will score some points off short drives and move the ball around some in one of the sloppier defensive efforts of the season. The Bucs' offense will find it difficult to hang onto the ball and get the scores they need to win the game. While I expect Caddy to have a good game, and keep the time of possession in the Bucs' favor, and thereby keep the score close, the Bucs will have too many mental errors to win this game.
The Bucs wrap up the season against the Panthers with a chance to win the division if the 8-7 Saints lose and the Bucs win. The offense will have a tough time moving the ball against a stout, and pissed, Panthers' defense, but they will move it enough to score some points. The Bucs' defense will show up big time for this game and render the Panthers' offense ineffective. The Bucs will win this game and go 9-7. Unfortunately, the Saints will win as well, taking the Division and being the first to repeat.
So there you have it. I see 9-7, a one game improvement over the result I expected going into preseason. Whether or not it will get the Bucs in the playoffs is hard to tell. What is for certain is that the Bucs will exit the regular season with a strong offense as well as a strong defense and will be ready to fight in either the playoffs or the regular season in 2008. I do see an opportunity for this team to go 10-6, just as much as I see one for them to slip to 8-8. I do think 7 wins is the absolute floor with this team, and I wouldn't be totally shocked, just pleasantly surprised, if this team managed 11 wins. It should be a fun season no matter what, and people will finally start to see the real offense that Gruden's been trying to acquire the talent to run. The offensive line will be a big key, as its ability to block with the DL with just 5 will allow the Bucs to totally open up the playbook. A young and inexperienced defense will be dominating down the stretch and get the Bucs back into the top 10 (barely).
This team has talent, more than many realize, but the inexperience factor will hurt them early. If they don't make the playoffs this year, they will next, and they will be a factor in 2008.