On Sunday, November 23rd, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers go home. Well, sort of. The closest thing the Buccaneers have had this season to home field advantage has been playing on the road. On top of that, Lovie Smith and Josh McCown will be leading the team into their recent stomping grounds. The Buccaneers travel to Chicago to take on the Bears, and this is the first time this season I am comfortable calling a game “make or break.” It’s a term I’m not really a fan of because of the season’s unpredictability, but it seems perfectly applicable at this point.
It’s boggling that at 2-8, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still in the race to win the NFC South thanks to the collective facepalm-worthy playing by all division members. However, a loss this week against Chicago would all but place the final nail in the coffin on the fairy tale playoff run that we’re all still hoping for. The team may not be statistically eliminated from the playoffs with a loss, but I’ll stop considering that an option if they lose. I won’t stop rooting for wins, but the magic of the playoffs will be too distant for me to comprehend.
The reason for this has both to do with the rest of Tampa’s season and that of the other NFC South. While the Bucs are only two games behind, they are not in good shape for a tiebreaker. At 0-4 within the division, a sweep of the rest of the season could only get them to 2-4 in the NFC South. I’m not sure it’s realistic to expect the rest of the NFC South to finish the season at 5-11 or worse. Someone will make it to 6-10, and their record within the division will probably be better than the Bucs’ record.
If the Bucs lose against Chicago, they’d likely need to sweep the rest of their schedule to make the playoffs. My optimism is high, but even I am not comfortable saying a Bucs team that loses to Chicago can sweep the Bengals, Lions, Panthers, Packers, and Saints. Even that miracle would make them 7-9, and if anyone else in the division racks up a few wins, that feat won’t matter. I’ve had fun thinking about how a 2-8 team could realistically still have a chance to make the playoffs, but it’ll be all ogre if the Bucs are 2-9 when they leave Chicago.
With the bad news out of the way, the good news is that the Buccaneers absolutely can beat the Chicago Bears. The Bears are an incredibly flawed team, and their biggest inconsistency has been on the defensive side of the ball. While the Bucs have had their fair share of defensive failures, they are showing more consistency as of late and being effective at creating turnovers. The Bears are fresh off of losses to New England and Green Bay in which their opponents racked up more than 50 points.
Tampa Bay may have seen that travesty once this season, but it happened all the way back in the ancient times of week three. Those wounds are still fresh in Chicago, and a loss to the Buccaneers would be devastating to their chances at gaining momentum in the NFC North where 4-6 isn’t a record likely to lead to a spot in the playoffs. The Bears defense has a whopping one interception in their last four games and has recovered one fumble. That’s wonderful news as Josh McCown will need to be nearly mistake free against the Bears. Meanwhile, the Bears’ cornerback situation provides a delightful mismatch for the Bucs’ resident swagmaster Mike Evans.
The Bears’ offense will be the biggest hurdle for the Buccaneers. While the Tampa Bay defense showed drastic improvement, it has not done well against the run. Redskins running back Alfred Morris had his best game of the season against the Bucs. This doesn’t bode well as the defense gets ready to go up against Bears running back Matt Forte. Forte may not be shattering records like Demarco Murray, but Forte is definitely a force to be reckoned with. If the Bucs can’t contain Forte, he could have his best game of the year at the Bucs’ expense.
Meanwhile, Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler has thrown 12 interceptions this season, and that number will have to grow in order for the Bucs to keep Chicago’s potent offense in check. Despite Chicago’s struggles this year, they still have plenty of weapons at their disposal. However, the most concerning issue going into Chicago is the question of Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David. The resident tackling machine who has more total tackles than Chicago’s top two tacklers combined is currently struggling with a hamstring injury. David is listed as questionable, but the fact that he did not participate in practice on Thursday or Friday is not good.
It won’t be clear until gametime, but Tampa Bay’s defense will struggle without having Lavonte David in the lineup. David by himself has 16 tackles for loss this season, while the entire Chicago Bears roster only has 20 tackles for loss. If David isn’t available, Major Wright will have to step up in a huge way. Wright would need to match or outdo his performance in Washington. Chicago’s shoddy offensive line is good news for potential sacks, but nothing about this game is a given. If Lavonte David plays and the Buccaneers offense keeps rolling, they’ll be flying home to Tampa at a noteworthy 3-8.
Prediction: Bucs win, 30-24