Breaking down the 'most important game of the year' for the Tampa Bay Bucs

TAMPA, Fla. – Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady called this Sunday’s matchup against the Buffalo Bills their “most important game of the year.”

"They're really well-coached," Brady said of the Bills. "They play really hard. Very tough team. Very resilient team. They challenge you in every way."

At 9-3, the Bucs have a four-game lead in the NFC South, and they’re putting pressure on the Arizona Cardinals (10-2) and Green Bay Packers (9-3) for one of the top two seeds in the NFC, which would guarantee at least two home playoff games.

A win, coupled with both a New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers loss or tie this weekend, would also give the Bucs the NFC South division crown for the first time since 2007.

“Buffalo’s tough," wide receiver Mike Evans added. "They were a few plays away from the AFC Championship. We could have played them in the Super Bowl last year."

Here's a closer look at the matchup (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS):

Tom Brady vs. the Bills’ pass defense

Brady leads the NFL with 3,771 passing yards and 34 touchdowns. The Bills’ defense has given up 20 touchdowns this season -- the fewest in the league -- with eight passing touchdowns surrendered. Their 57.7 completion percentage by opposing quarterbacks is also tops in the league, though they will be without Pro Bowl cornerback Tre’Davious White, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.

Even without White (expect Brady to test his replacement Dane Jackson) they have a pair of nine-year veterans in Jordan Poyer, who’s tied for a league-leading five interceptions for safeties, and safety Micah Hyde, who has three interceptions. Of defenders who have seen a minimum of 15 targets, nickelback Taron Johnson has also allowed a 43.5 completion percentage when targeted -- seventh best in the league -- while Poyer has allowed 43.8%, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Against coach Sean McDermott’s Bills from 2017-2019, Brady threw more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4), but the Patriots won all of those matchups, and the Patriots typically had a solid ground game, with the exception of Week 8 in 2018 (76 total rushing yards) and Week 4 in 2019 (74 total rushing yards). But in both of those games, the Patriots’ defense held the Bills to 6 and 10 points, respectively. In the other four games, the Patriots averaged 200 yards on the ground and totaled seven rushing touchdowns.

The Bills don’t give up much on outside deep passes and vertical routes, but they have given up big plays on deep routes that break inside. They’ve given up 232 yards on inside deep routes -- third most in the league (conversely, they’re one of the best teams at defending inside short passes). The Bucs use Evans, Chris Godwin and Breshad Perriman on this route.

For Brady to have success in the end zone, it would likely come on short fade routes, screen passes, corner routes (he and Gronk connected on one of these against Buffalo in 2017) or throwing outside the pocket when plays break down, which the Bills allowed to Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Washington Football Team's Taylor Heinicke.

Edge: Bills

Bucs’ pass defense vs. Josh Allen

The Bucs got their tandem of starting cornerbacks -- Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting -- back together last week for the first time since Week 1. Davis allowed a 50 completion percentage and had three pass breakups against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan last week. The defense simply looks more confident with these two out there.

Allen’s best throw this season has been the post route. Allen has a perfect passer rating when targeting post routes this season (158.3), going 19-of-23 for 461 yards and 6 touchdowns, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, while the Bucs have yet to surrender a post route for a TD this year.

While the Bills have struggled defending inside deep routes, the Bucs’ biggest struggle has been defending hitch routes, where they’ve surrendered 500 passing yards this season. This could be a problem, given Allen has completed 47 such throws this season -- second only to Mahomes. The Bucs have also had some issues defending the flat in the end zone, which speaks to their aggressiveness (they blitzed on each of those) and corner routes.

Speaking of aggressiveness -- they have to be mindful of this with Allen. While the tendency is often to throw the kitchen sink at younger quarterbacks, seven of Allen's 10 interceptions thrown this season came when he saw four or fewer rushers, meaning it makes more sense to drop defenders into coverage. It should also be noted that seven of his 10 interceptions have come over the past five weeks, as he’s been guilty of trying to do too much.

Edge: Toss-up

Bills’ run game vs. Bucs’ run defense

The Bills’ inability to run the ball outside of Allen stood out in their Monday night loss to the New England Patriots. It’s been an issue all year. The Bills’ 896 rushing yards from running backs ranks 27th (they have 1,400 total rushing yards though, which speaks to Allen’s mobility).

Some would argue the Bills simply don’t need to run the ball with anybody else given Allen’s 5.63 yards per carry is better than Indianapolis Colts star running back Jonathan Taylor.

The Bucs, on the other hand, have had one of the top-ranked run defenses in the league the last few years. They did surrender big run plays to Taylor and Falcons utility man Cordarrelle Patterson, but they’ve generally been stout in this department -- allowing just one 100-yard rusher all season in Chicago Bears back Khalil Herbert. Expect a quiet day from Bills running backs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss.

Edge: Bucs

Leonard Fournette vs. the Bills’ run defense

The flip side to the Bills’ pass defense is they’ve given up 12 rushing touchdowns this season -- tied for eighth most in the league. They surrendered 222 rushing yards to the Patriots despite quarterback Mac Jones attempting three passes. They also surrendered 185 yards and four touchdowns on the ground to Taylor and 264 total rushing yards in Week 11.

Fournette also had two rushing touchdowns -- both up the middle -- when he faced the Bills in 2018. He had 108 scrimmage yards (with 73 of them coming after contact) in that game. Considering the steam he’s picked up lately (he had four touchdowns from scrimmage against the Colts), he could be in for another big week. The Bills have been very stingy on the perimeter this season, though. Fournette’s success will come off the left or right guards and could be after contact.

Edge: Fournette