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Previewing Saturday’s Tampa Bay-Washington playoff game - scoring analysis

What can we learn from regular season scoring data?

NFL: JAN 03 Falcons at Buccaneers Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I sat down to work on a Keys to the Game article for the upcoming wildcard round playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but I quickly realized that the article was going to be encyclopedic. It was also going to take me two weeks to write, but the game is just four days away; it is scheduled for 8:15 pm this Saturday night.

Clearly, I had to re-think my plan.

I decided to write a series of articles instead. I’m starting with this one today, and my hope is to publish three or four additional articles between now and game time, each one focusing on a different aspect of the playoff matchup between the Football Team and the Buccaneers.

24 points has been the key number for Tampa Bay during the regular season

One of the first things I do when I look at an upcoming opponent is to scan the wins & losses looking for trends. The Buccaneers have a very simple one to spot — every time they scored 25 points or more in the regular season, they won; every time they scored 24 points or less, they lost.

This is GREAT news for Washington and its 4th ranked scoring defense that gave up 20.6 points per game in the regular season. Washington has surrendered 24 points or more 5 times, but only once since Week 5, and not at all since Week 11.

Here’s a list of Washington’s opponents, with points scored and offensive ranking (points per game).

I’ve tried to use a little color-coding to highlight what looks to me to be the most obvious trend here.

If you throw out the Week 7 game in which the Cowboys rolled over and died, appearing unmotivated and disinterested, as an outlier, two pretty strong patterns emerge.

Pattern One - Weeks 2-10
As you can see from the tan-colored indicators in the “Pts allowed vs Avg” column, the Washington defense was giving up more points than opponents’ season averages from Weeks 2-10, ranging between 6% and 33% more than each team’s average. There was no apparent correlation with the quarterback play, as the pattern held no matter which of the three quarterbacks appeared in the game.

Pattern Two - Weeks 11-17

The green indicator in the same column highlights that the Washington defense held every team it played in this part of the season (Weeks 11-17) below the opponent’s season average points per game.

In the five games started by Alex Smith, 80% of the time the opposing offense scored between 64% and 67% of its 2020 average points per game. This included stronger scoring offenses like the Steelers (12th) and weaker ones like the Eagles (26th).

In the two games started by Haskins, the opposing team’s score was higher (70%, 91%) but sill below the season average.

What conclusion do I draw from this?

Without pointing to any specific cause, I can still see that there was a profound change with regard to opponents’ scoring that took hold starting in Week 11.

This seems to have implications for the playoff game against the Buccaneers; I think we can look at the second pattern as being the one relevant to a “Week 18” game.

What this means to me is that the expectation should be that the Washington defense, with Alex Smith as the starting quarterback, should be expected to allow the Buccaneers to score approximately 66% of their season points per game average.

It turns out that Tampa Bay is a more prolific scoring offense than any that Washington faced in 2020; the Buccaneers are ranked #3 in the NFL, scoring 30.8 points per game for the full 16-game season.

30.8 x 66% = 20.3 points

This analysis suggests that Washington can be expected to hold the Bucs to around 20 points on Saturday.

Will that be enough?

Well, Washington has scored an average of 20.9 points per game for the season.

In the games that Alex Smith has started, the team has averaged 25.7 points per game, but that includes 3 defensive touchdowns.

If you limit the analysis to only offensive points scored by excluding those three defensive TDs, then in those 5 games, the WFT offense has scored 22.17 points per game.

All of these raw numbers, on the face of things, appear to be enough.

Adjusting for the specific opponent

But, let’s try to take into account the specific defense that Washington will be facing. It turns out that Tampa Bay has a pretty good defense, ranked 8th in scoring, giving up 22.2 points per game.

As can be seen from the chart above, Washington is averaging 98% of points allowed per game in Smith’s 5 starts, but the offense is scoring only 84% of that number. The “cluster” seems to be at 75% - 83% for both groups.

Let’s look at what that could mean for the Alex Smith led offense going up against the Tampa Bay defense.

22.2 x 84% = 18.65

It seems that the offense, by itself, should be expected to score in the 17-19 point range, which isn’t likely to be enough to win the game. A defensive touchdown (and PAT) would add 7 points, making a win likely, however, no game plan should rely on scoring a defensive touchdown.

Recent results

The math here already looks difficult for the burgundy & gold; it gets more so when considering just the most recent three games.

  • Over the past three games, the TB offense has scored an average of 40.7 points per game, as compared to the season-long average of 30.8.
  • The Washington offense has scored 23, 9, and 20 points in Alex Smith’s last three starts.
  • Over the past three games, Tampa Bay’s defense has given up 20.3 points per game, compared to the season-long average of 22.2.
  • The good news here is that, in Alex’s last three starts, Washington’s defense has given up just 17, 15, and 14 points.

Bottom line

The divisional playoff game between the NFC East Champion Washington Football Team and the wildcard team from the NFC South looks to be shaping up as a low-scoring affair — the type that is often decided by which team possesses the ball last, or the team that generates the most turnovers.

The simplistic analysis offered in this article indicates that the Alex Smith-led Washington offense is unlikely to generate more than 20 points against a top-ten Tampa Bay defense, and is most likely to score in the 17-19 point range, so the burden of winning the game is likely to fall to the Washington defensive unit, as it has since Week 11.

Defense stepping up

Averages indicate that the WFT defense is likely to hold Tampa Bay’s offense to around 20 points, which means that the Washington defense would have to do something extraordinary to win the game.

What do I mean by extraordinary?

Well, a defensive touchdown would be one example. A turnover differential of +2 would be another. Both of these can swing the scoreboard.

In the absence of any sudden-change plays of this variety, then just hard-nosed defensive football that holds the TB offense to 17 points or less will probably be necessary. In that case, we’re talking about limiting TB drives with 3rd down stops and staying in favorable field position all game long. This, of course, may be asking too much from a defense that is already carrying the team.

Outside of something extraordinary from the special teams unit, either the defense or the offense (or both) is going to have to play significantly above the level it has done since Week 11. The defensive unit has already been among the very best in the league during that time frame, so expecting more from that unit may be unreasonable.

Offense stepping up

The Alex Smith-led offensive unit, on the other hand, has largely under-performed from a points-scored perspective, putting up more than 23 points only twice in 6 games. with both of those games coming against bottom-5 NFL defenses.

It is probably more realistic to hope, with Alex Smith, Antonio GIbson, JD McKissic, Logan Thomas and Terry McLaurin all healthy enough to play, along with a healthy and well-performing OL unit, that the offense will be able to do more than it has been doing.

Based on the research and analysis I’ve offered here, I’m suggesting that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are likely to score about 20 points against the WFT defense. Further, it is likely that they will score 13-17 points by halftime, and be held to a field goal or touchdown in the second half to reach 20 points for the game.

If the offense achieves the “expected” total of 17-19 points on Saturday, then the Washington playoff bid will end quickly.

Instead, the healthy Football Team offense needs to score one time more than this analysis says they will; they need to put up 24 points or more to secure the win against a very good Tampa Bay team led by the most successful quarterback in NFL history.


How many points will be scored by TB & WFT combined in Saturday’s game?

This poll is closed

  • 27%
    39 or less
    (240 votes)
  • 40%
    (362 votes)
  • 23%
    (205 votes)
  • 9%
    50 or more
    (80 votes)
887 votes total Vote Now