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NFL Preview - New England (4-2) vs. Tampa Bay (0-6)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were selected last December to represent the NFL in London this year, they were fighting for a playoff spot.
The team hasn't won a game since. And with a contest against the New England Patriots on tap at Wembley Stadium this Sunday, what was once a sense of honor in being selected to participate in the annual International Series has likely turned to dread.
When the NFL picked Tampa Bay, the designated home team for this game, and New England to square off in England back on December 1, the Buccaneers were 9-3 and in the thick of the playoff hunt. The club closed the season with four straight losses, however, including a seven-point setback to Oakland on the final weekend that cost the Bucs a postseason spot and led to the offseason firing of head coach Jon Gruden.
The Raheem Morris era hasn't gotten off to the best of starts either. Tampa Bay has lost its first six games under its new head coach for its worst start since 1985, when the franchise began 0-9.
Their 10-game losing streak dating back to last year is the Buccaneers' longest since they lost their first 26 games in team history, an 0-14 debut in 1976 that was followed by setbacks in their first 12 games of '77.
Tampa Bay is coming off one of its closest defeats of the season, a 28-21 setback to Carolina last Sunday. The game had been tied late before the Panthers put together a game-winning drive that lasted over eight minutes, with the deciding touchdown coming with just 29 seconds to go.
It would be hard to imagine the Bucs keeping it that close on Sunday. New England heads overseas fresh off one of the most dominating efforts in league history, as 59-0 thrashing of another winless team, the Tennessee Titans,
Quarterback Tom Brady matched a career high with six touchdown passes, including a NFL-record five in the second quarter alone. His performance helped New England tie the largest margin of victory in a game since the 1970 merger. The Patriots' 45-0 advantage by halftime was also an NFL record.
New England brings a 16-game regular-season winning streak versus the NFC into this contest. The Patriots, who beat the Falcons on September 27 in their lone previous NFC matchup this year, haven't lost to the conference since Week 2 of 2005 and are 29-4 in the regular season versus the NFC since 2001.
This Sunday's battle is the third straight season the NFL has played a game at London's Wembley Stadium. New Orleans defeated San Diego, 37-32, in London on October 26, 2008, one year after the New York Giants topped Miami, 13-10, on October 28, 2007.
The Patriots have a 4-2 edge in their all-time series with the Buccaneers, including a 28-0 home rout when the clubs last met, in 2005. Tampa Bay was a 21-16 road winner in the previous meeting, in 2000, and was a 27-7 victor when the teams last squared off in Florida, in 1997.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is 2-1 in his career against the Buccaneers, including 1-1 while with the Patriots. Morris will be meeting both Belichick and New England for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
For the first time this season, Brady (1724 passing yards, 12 TD, 2 INT flashed signs of his dominating 2007 campaign, when he totaled 50 touchdown passes. Brady doubled his scoring pass total in the game while throwing for a season-high 380 yards. The 32-year-old is 12-0 versus the NFC since October 9, 2005, having thrown 30 scoring passes to five interceptions. Brady got wide receiver Randy Moss (38 receptions, 4 TD) involved in last weekend's blowout, completing eight passes to Moss for 129 yards and the two hooking up for three touchdowns. Wes Welker (36 receptions, 3 TD) also had a big game, making a game-high 10 receptions for 150 yards with a pair of touchdowns. With running back Sammy Morris suffering a knee injury in the first half of last Sunday's game, an ailment that leaves him doubtful for this contest, Laurence Maroney (222 rushing yards) carried the ball 16 times for 123 yards with a score, his first touchdown of the season. Brady was sacked twice in last Sunday's snowy conditions, raising his season total to seven. New England ranks sixth in the NFL in sacks allowed, but tackle Matt Light could miss his second straight game due to a knee injury. Rookie Sebastian Vollmer started in his place versus the Titans.
While New England's Brady-led attack figures to be a huge mismatch for the Tampa Bay defense, the Buccaneers do enter this contest ranked 11th in the NFL versus the pass (198.5 yards per game). However, the unit also ranks just 31st in run defense (171.7 ypg). That shouldn't stop the Patriots from attacking Tampa Bay's secondary and putting a lot of pressure on corners Aqib Talib (22 tackles, 3 INT) and Ronde Barber (27 tackles, 1 sack). The Buccaneers have gotten a lift in the secondary thanks to the return of safety Tanard Jackson (9 tackles), who returned an interception 26 yards for a game-tying score on Sunday versus Carolina. Jackson missed the first four games of the season due to suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Linebacker Barrett Ruud (58 tackles, 1 INT) had nine tackles and also picked up an interception, while Barber ended with eight stops. Elevated to a starting role because of the trade of Gaines Adams to Chicago, defensive end Stylez G. White (16 tackles) notched eight tackles and his first sack of the season last week. White's sack was just Tampa Bay's 10th of the season, tied for 23rd in the NFL. Half of those have come from defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Tampa Bay may have uncovered a new weapon in 2009 seventh-round pick Sammie Stroughter (13 receptions). Filling in for injured Pro Bowl kick returner Clifton Smith, who suffered a concussion on an illegal hit by a Carolina player in last Sunday's game, Stroughter returned his third career kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown that sparked a Bucs rally. Stroughter also ended with three receptions with a team-high 65 yards and should return kicks again with Smith doubtful this weekend. Wideout Antonio Bryant (14 receptions, 1 TD) added two catches for 37 yards and tight end Kellen Winslow (29 receptions, 4 TD) made three receptions for 29 yards. Quarterback Josh Johnson (529 passing yards, 3 TD, 5 INT) was 11-for-17 passing for 147 yards with an interception and fumble lost in his third career start, but remains the No. 1 signal- caller. Running back Cadillac Williams (276 rushing yards, 2 TD) totaled 77 yards on 16 carries with a 20-yard touchdown run. He was running behind Ernest Graham, who is taking over fullback duties due to the loss of B.J. Askew to back and neck injuries suffered in a car accident. The fleet-footed Johnson was sacked four times by Carolina.
The Bucs' 28th-ranked offense (277.7 ypg) squares off against a New England squad that forced five turnovers in shutting out Tennessee. The Titans managed just nine first downs and minus-seven yards passing in snowy Foxboro, making them the first team since the merger to finish the game with negative passing yards. With free safety James Sanders (15 tackles) missing his second game in a row due to a shoulder ailment, Brandon McGowan (37 tackles) stepped in to make seven tackles while also forcing a fumble. Rookie safety Pat Chung (13 tackles) added six tackles and an interception, the first of his career, while linebacker Jerod Mayo (13 tackles) added six stops. Mayo was playing for the second straight week after missing three games due to a knee issue. Cornerback and 2009 second-round pick Darius Butler added his first career interception in the blowout, which now has New England ranked sixth against the pass this year at 180.5 yards per game allowed. While 40-year-old linebacker Junior Seau made his season debut versus Tennessee, notching a pair of tackles, fellow veteran Adalius Thomas (15 tackles) was a surprise healthy scratch. It is unknown if he will return to the lineup for this game.
New England starters will be featured aplenty in fantasy lineups all over the country. While its offense usually has a host of must-start players anyway, a matchup versus the Bucs elevates all borderline players into the starting lineup as well. Moss, Brady, Welker and Maroney should all get looks, as should running back Kevin Faulk (75 rushing yards, 17 receptions, 2 total TD) and kicker Stephen Gostkowski (13-for-16 FG). New England's defense is also an excellent play. New England has a flare for the big stage and don't expect the club to take it easy on the Bucs.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, features few starters. Williams should see most of the carries and faces a middle-of-the-road run defense (116.3 ypg). Johnson has yet to prove himself fantasy worthy, though Winslow is always a good play at the tight end spot. Bryant is a favorite target of Johnson and could put up numbers, while Stroughter is worth keeping an eye on. Owners should stay far, far away from Tampa Bay's defense.
While Tampa Bay is still in search of an identity, New England appears to have found itself in the Tennessee game. That is not good news for the Buccaneers. Rarely do the Patriots struggle against inferior teams, and Belichick should revel in showing off on a world stage. Both clubs will go all out with a bye week to follow, but Tampa Bay just doesn't have the personnel to compete. Few would have given the Bucs a shot before the Pats' dismantling of the Titans. Expect Morris to go into his first break still searching for a win, while Belichick and company continue to announce their presence to the rest of the league.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 38, Buccaneers 17
10/22 17:50:48 ET