2016 Tampa Bay Buccaneers game-by-game predictions

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were still alive in the NFC playoff picture last season after an early December victory over Atlanta, but they faltered down the stretch and lost four in a row to close the season. The NFL didn’t do them any favors to start 2016, as it gave them three playoff teams in the first five games, including a Monday night game at Carolina. It might be a little rough at the beginning, but the growth of Jameis Winston, the free-agent additions on defense plus the draft, and the hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Smith will have the Bucs back in the playoff hunt.

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 11 at Atlanta, 1 p.m. ET

The Bucs swept the Falcons in 2015. In fact, the Falcons are the last team the Bucs beat (23-19 on Dec. 6). Think Smith might be a little hyped for his return to Atlanta for the first time since the Falcons fired him following the 2014 season? Even so, it’s a tough way to start the season. Record: 0-1

Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 18 at Arizona, 4:05 p.m. ET

This isn't technically a West Coast trip, but it is one of the Bucs’ longer trips in 2016. This is the first of three playoff teams the Bucs will face in a four-week stretch. The improved secondary – which could include hometown kid Vernon Hargreaves III -- will be tested by Carson Palmer, who threw a career-high 35 touchdown passes last season. Record: 0-2

Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 25 vs. Los Angeles, 4:05 p.m. ET

This is shaping up to be a matchup of the two quarterbacks taken first overall the past two seasons. Unless, of course, Jeff Fisher decides to go with Case Keenum or Nick Foles. Reports are that the Rams are leaning toward Jared Goff, who might not be as ready as Winston was to play right away. Record: 1-2

Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2 vs. Denver, 4:05 p.m. ET

This game begins the most brutal back-to-back of any team in the NFL. The defending Super Bowl champs might not have a starting quarterback right now, but their defense -- even with the losses of defensive tackle Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan -- is still one of the league’s best. Record: 1-3

Week 5: Monday, Oct. 10 at Carolina, 8:30 p.m. ET

This is the Bucs’ first Monday Night Football appearance since 2013. Cam Newton is 6-2 with 14 touchdown passes and eight rushing touchdowns in his career against the Bucs. He has won four in a row in the series. Record: 1-4

Week 6: Bye week

Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23 at San Francisco, 4:05 p.m. ET

The Bucs are 2-12 all time at San Francisco and have won there just once since 1980 (in 2010.) The 49ers aren’t very good, though, and even the long road trip won’t have much of an impact on the Bucs. Record: 2-4

Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30 vs. Oakland, 1 p.m. ET

This starts a three-game homestand for the Bucs, and it’s a matchup of two of the top young quarterbacks in the game. The Raiders were big winners in free agency, and their offense, behind Derek Carr, Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, has the potential to be one of the AFC’s better units. But it’s a long trip back and might feel like an early start. Record: 3-4

Week 9: Thursday, Nov. 3 vs. Atlanta, 8:25 p.m. ET

Julio Jones has had a pretty good career against the Bucs: 56 catches for 929 yards and six touchdowns. That’s 16.6 yards per catch. He caught only one touchdown pass in two meetings last season, however, and the Falcons lost both times. Record: 4-4

Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13 vs. Chicago, 1 p.m. ET

As nice a player as Jeremy Langford appears to be, the Bears are really going to miss Matt Forte. His contribution in the passing game (487 catches over eight seasons) won’t easily be replaced, and that will have an impact on quarterback Jay Cutler, who has won just 16 games as a starter the past three seasons. Record: 5-4

Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20 at Kansas City, 1 p.m. ET

This starts another tough two-game stretch for the Bucs, and it could be an especially rough span for the offense. The Chiefs had the seventh-ranked defense in 2015 and were one of only four teams to rank in the top 10 in both rushing and passing defense. Record: 5-5

Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27 vs. Seattle, 4:05 p.m. ET

The Seahawks had the No. 2 overall defense last season and ranked first against the rush and second against the pass. It’ll be a tough day for Doug Martin and Winston. Record: 5-6

Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4 at San Diego, 4:25 p.m. ET

Tampa makes its first trip to San Diego since 2004. The Bucs are 1-3 against the Chargers on the West Coast. Philip Rivers has played the Bucs only twice, but he has put up pretty good numbers: 624 yards and seven touchdowns for a passer rating of 123.7. Record: 5-7

Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11 vs. New Orleans, 1 p.m. ET

The Saints have won eight of the past nine meetings with the Bucs and started the Bucs’ four-game losing streak in December by winning 24-17 in Tampa. That loss kept the Bucs from climbing over .500 for the first time in three years. Record: 6-7

Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18 at Dallas, 1 p.m. ET

It’s easy to point to the absence of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant as the reason the Cowboys won just four games last season. But they also couldn’t run the ball consistently and forced a league-low 11 turnovers. The Bucs are trending up, while the Cowboys are descending. Record: 7-7

Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24 at New Orleans, 1 p.m. ET

Drew Brees has thrown 18 touchdown passes in his past eight games against the Bucs. Not surprisingly, the Saints are 7-1 in those games. However, the Saints’ defense ranked 31st against the pass, against the run and overall in 2015. Record: 8-7

Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1 vs. Carolina, 1 p.m. ET

This could be a game in which the Panthers rest their starters, or it could be a game in which they’re fighting for the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. It’s hard to sit a lot of guys on defense, though, and the Panthers have one of the league’s best. Record: 8-8