Ah, a new season – and with it, every team’s record goes back to 0-0. For all the predictions and projections, every team has the exact same chance as every other to make the playoffs, and that’s as it should be. For a couple of weeks, even the Blaine Gabberts and Geno Smiths of the world can imagine a day when they will lead their teams to Super Bowl victories.
The NFL certainly knows how to throw a first-week schedule out there, too. You have two big playoff rematches in GB-SF and BAL-DEN, you have the return of RGIII going up against the awaited debut of Chip Kelly, you have long-standing divisional rivals in DAL-NYG, and so on. But, with every team still in it, I thought I’d take a look at a matchup of two teams giving One Last Chance to key people. The path to redemption – or a pink slip – starts here.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-0) @ New York Jets (0-0) – Sunday, September 8th, 1:00 PM Eastern, FOX.
Last Season: The disaster that was the New York Jets 2012 season has been well covered, both here and elsewhere, so I’ll be brief – butt fumble. 2012 was widely considered a make-or-break season for Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan, and while Sanchez continued to flail under pressure and was replaced for this season, and while the general manager and most of the coaching staff left town, Ryan remains, a lame duck with one last chance to save his reputation, if not his job. Another 6-10 season, and he’s out of town. Heck, a 9-7 season, as long as it ends up short of the playoffs, is probably enough to get his walking papers.
The Buccaneers finished last season at 7-9, with sheer power on the ground, which would be really useful if this was the 1970s. With the passing game only getting more important with each progressive season, a team with poor passing and a poor pass defense isn’t going to go very far. They pumped up the pass defense this offseason, most notably with the addition of one Darrelle Revis, from … the New York Jets. Of course the schedule makers would make them face off in the first week of the season. The real limiting factor, though, will be how well Josh Freeman performs – with their run game as good as it is, an average, consistent pass game is all they need. They didn’t get it in the preseason, and with Freeman on the last year of his rookie contract, it’s time to either put up or shut up.
Last meeting: Things were different in 2009. The Buccaneers were horrible that season, finishing 3-13 in their first Jon Gruden-less season, while the Jets ended up riding their star rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez, all the way to the AFC Championship game. Sanchez wasn’t available for the week 14 matchup, though – Kellen Clemens came in as Sanchez rested up from a knee sprain, and was adequate, if not spectacular. That was all that was needed as rookie Josh Freeman was picked off three times, coming off of a game where he had been intercepted five times, so I suppose you can say there were signs of improvement. Thomas Jones added a couple rushing touchdowns on the ground as the Jets rolled to a lopsided win, 26-3
What’s at stake: Teams that start out 1-0 make the playoffs 54 percent of the time. Teams that start 0-1 make it just 25 percent of the time. As an inter-conference game, it’ll play a large role in the divisional tiebreakers (common games), but a small one in the wild card tiebreakers (which uses conference games, instead). More personally, both Rex Ryan and Josh Freeman need good seasons to ensure they stay where they are for 2013, and a big win in the opening game of the season is just the right place to do that.
This time: It’s a pretty good start for that revamped Buccaneer pass defense, getting to face rookie Geno Smith in his first NFL start. Revis, in particular, will be playing with a chip on his shoulder – returning to the stadium where he made a name for himself, wanting to show off – but the entire revamped secondary, including ex-49er Dashon Goldson, will be licking their chops at the chance to face a guy who was 22-for-37 in the preseason, with only one touchdown and three interceptions. If this is the first test for the revamped pass defense, it’s more a pop quiz than a full-on exam.
Making it harder for Geno and Gang Green is the question about who will start at the skill positions – Chris Ivory is the more talented of their running backs, but he missed a lot of time in training camp and preseason, meaning Bilal Powell likely gets the start. In addition, Santonio Holmes hasn’t been practicing with a foot injury, and is questionable for the game. Against the number one rush defense last season, the Jets will have to be successful through the air if they’re going to be competitive in this game, meaning they’re going to have to give Smith time in the pocket. Adrian Clayborn, coming off of a knee injury, and Gerald McCoy will be the two big names on the line to watch, and I’m sure Greg Schiano has all sorts of exotic and dangerous blitzes lined up to test young Geno’s mettle.
However, the Jets aren’t a total void of talent – even with Revis gone, there is still talent on this defense, and that’s where their chances lie, not just for this game, but for this season. Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Antonio Cromartie form a very solid core – and in a weak AFC East, that could be enough to threaten 8-8, if the offense isn’t too much of an anchor. They’ll be looking forward to facing Freeman almost as much as the Buccaneers will welcome seeing Smith. Freeman hasn’t looked good this preseason, either – his stats ended at 12-for-26 with no touchdowns, and the Buccaneers offense sputtered. Worse, Carl Nicks will likely miss the game – and possibly the entire first month – with a staph infection, robbing the offensive line of its top player.
If the Buccaneers are going to win, it’s going to be on the ground with Doug Martin. The breakout star last season only had three carries in the preseason, but he’s good to go – and the Jets only finished 26th against the run last year. That’s where Richardson comes in, as well as a hope that David Harris returns to form after his off year last season. If they can bottle up Martin, the Jets have every chance in this game. If Martin gets untracked, however, it’ll be a long day for the Jets.
Prediction: I have the Buccaneers taking home a wild-card slot, and the Jets missing the playoffs. I have the Buccaneers listed higher in my power rankings, despite having possibly the highest Jets rankings on the internet. I think Freeman is better than Smith, I think Schiano is better than Ryan, and I think at the end of the year, Freeman will still be in Tampa and Ryan will be looking for a job.
All that being said, I think this one’s going to come down to the defenses, and in New York, I’ve got a bit of a hunch that the Jets will be fired up. This game could very easily go either way, but I like the Jets to play a very simple, basic offense scheme – just trying not to screw up. Add in a couple big plays from the defense, and I’ll go ahead and pick the upset – the Jets open up their campaign with a big win at home. Call it Jets 21, Buccaneers 10.