Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) at Washington Football Team (7-9)
The Washington Football Team has made the post-season at 7-9, just the third time in NFL history a team with a losing record has made the playoffs. Washington’s record and the fact that they only qualified for the playoffs because they’re in a terrible division in the NFC East has caused them to be seen as an illegitimate playoff team by some, but Washington actually could have had 9 or 10 wins fairly easily, as their went 0-3 in games decided by 3 points or fewer, including a pair of games against the Giants in which they lost by 4 points combined, despite winning the first down rate battle by a combined +4.60%, as a result of a combined -6 turnover margin in those 2 games.
Turnover margin is highly inconsistent week-to-week and Washington was +2 in turnovers other than those 2 games, so it’s not hard to see how Washington could easily be 9-7 right now (not even including a near victory against Detroit). If Washington was 9-7, I think they would be getting a little bit more respect going into the post-season, especially since they are 5-1 in games started by Alex Smith, with the one loss being that loss to Detroit. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, Washington ranks 10th at +1.57%, which is also in line with roughly a 9-7 team.
Washington is led by their defense, which ranks 3rd in the NFL in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.36%. That’s somewhat of a concern because defensive play is much more inconsistent week-to-week than offensive play and Washington’s offense ranks just 27th in first down rate over expected at -2.79%, but Washington’s offense has been better in recent weeks. Not only because Alex Smith has been their best starting quarterback this season, but also because their offensive line is at full strength and playing at a high level in recent weeks. That helped them stay competitive even in the two games Alex Smith missed with injury down the stretch.
Unfortunately, Smith’s injury situation seems to be getting worse, not better, with Washington looking likely to rotate Smith and Taylor Heinicke at quarterback in this one, to keep Smith fresh. Heinicke even took most of the first team reps in practice on Thursday, though Smith is still expected to be able to go in a limited capacity. Heinicke is probably better than either Kyle Allen or Dwayne Haskins, Washington’s other quarterbacks besides Smith this season, and Washington’s offensive line should be a big help for him, but, of further concern, their feature back Antonio Gibson and top wide receiver Terry McLaurin are also playing at less than 100% through injuries, though they’re both in better shape than Smith. The injury uncertainty of their three most important offensive skill position players makes it tough to be confident in Washington.
What also makes it tough to be confident in Washington is that their opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are legitimately one of the best teams in the league and, while they might not quite justify being 8-point favorites over a capable Washington team, they come close to it, so we’re not getting the kind of line value with Washington that we could need to bet them in their current injury situation. Like Washington was better than their 7-9 record, Tampa Bay was also better than their 11-5 record, as their 5 losses all came against playoff qualifiers, including 3 losses by 3 points or fewer.
Overall, Tampa Bay finished 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.46% and they were one of just two teams in the league (New Orleans) to finish in the top-10 in both first down rate over expected and first down rate allowed over expected. Their defense carried them early in the season and, though they had some expected regression on that side of the ball, they still finished 5th at -2.77%, while their offense improved as the season went on and Tom Brady got more familiarity in this offense and more consistency from his receiving corps, leading to them finishing 9th at +1.69%. My roster rankings also support the Buccaneers being seen as a top contender, ranking Tampa Bay 3rd among playoff qualifiers. We’re still getting some line value with Washington (my calculated line is Tampa Bay -6.5, with Washington’s injury uncertainty factored in), but not nearly enough to be confident in them in their current injury situation.
Update: Smith has been ruled out and this line has jumped to 10 in response. I don’t think Heinicke is a big downgrade from a banged up Smith and he’s played better than all of Washington’s other non-Alex Smith quarterbacks, so I like Washington against the spread little more at the new line, though not nearly enough to bet on them.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 Washington Football Team 16
Pick against the spread: Washington +10