NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (2-2) AT TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (2-1)
SERIES HISTORY: 9th regular-season meeting. Patriots lead series, 6-2, including three straight victories. Five of the Pats wins have come by at least 17 points. New England has won the last three games by a combined score of 86-10.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots arrive with the No. 1 offense in the NFL as quarterback Tom Brady has passed for 1,399 yards to receivers like bully-boy tight end Rob Gronkowski, speedy Brandin Cooks and clever Danny Amendola. That offense is averaging 423 yards per game. And that would be even more impressive if the Patriots defense were not also giving up a league-high 456.8 yards per game. The resulting track meets ruined all that talk about the Patriots' perfect season and now they hope not to fall below .500 against a Tampa Bay team seeking to make a name for itself. Watch for Brady to throw early and often against a Bucs defense that is giving ups 394 yards per contest.
The Bucs feel pretty good about their offense and the way quarterback Jameis Winston played last week. When he makes good decisions and does not turn the ball over, Winston makes the Bucs tough to beat. But head coach Dirk Koetter wants balance. He wants to limit the Patriots' possessions and keep the defense fresh. To do that, the Bucs must remain committed to running the football.
The Bucs found a running game vs. the Giants behind Jacquizz Rodgers, who averaged 5.6 yards per carry and had a 32-yard run. On Thursday, the Bucs will have the use of running back Doug Martin, who returns from the last three games of a suspension for PEDs. Martin will have fresh legs, but look for him to split the workload with Rodgers. Koetter knows the Patriots aren't playing well on defense, but he doesn't expect that to continue.
"When you study them, they're an amoeba defense," Koetter said. "They can play any personnel group, they can change from week-to-week, they can be in even-front one week, an odd-front next week, they will play dime the whole game. They've got a nickel package, a dime package (and a) quarter package. They've always been able to adjust. They will switch at halftime and they've always been a very difficult team to plan for. In that respect, maybe it's better that we do play them on a Thursday night."
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Patriots WR Brandin Cooks vs. Bucs CB Brent Grimes. The Patriots are throwing the ball down the field more than ever with Brady averaging more than nine yards per attempt. Cooks and Chris Hogan are legitimate deep threats and will test Grimes, who allowed only two receptions last week to the Giants' Odell Beckham, Jr.
Patriots CBs vs. Buccaneers WR Mike Evans. Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler, et al, have been generous this season. The test doesn't get any easier against Evans and the upstart Bucs' passing attack. Evans leads the Tampa Bay offense with 19 catches for 227 yards (11.9 average) with two touchdowns in three games. He is Jameis Winston's go-to guy. In recent weeks, New England's opposing passers (Deshaun Watson/Cam Newton) put up big numbers to their top targets (DeAndre Hopkins/Kelvin Benjamin).
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Tampa Bay safety Justin Smith. The Bucs used a second-round pick on the safety from Texas A&M, who is a terrific athlete. Smith was pressed into action last Sunday against the Giants after Keith Tandy left the game with a hip injury. He played well, and his range may be an asset against a team like the Patriots who like to throw the football down the field this season.
FAST FACTS: Pats QB Tom Brady passed for 307 yards, 2 TDs, no INTs and is looking for his fourth consecutive game passing for more than 300 yards. WR Chris Hogan has 4 TD catches in last three games and leads AFC with those four TD catches. WR Brandin Cooks collected 98 yards receiving in his last game vs. TB (12/24/16 with NO). LB Dont'a Hightower made one sack last week. CB Malcolm Butler, who was in the coach's doghouse a couple of weeks ago, had an INT last week; has 2 INTs and 5 PDs in last 3 games vs. NFC ... Bucs QB Jameis Winston threw for 332 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs and a 113 rating last week. RB Jacquizz Rodgers totaled 108 yards from scrimmage in last meeting. WR Mike Evans is going for fourth consecutive home game with a TD catch. He has 20 receptions for 307 yards, 2 TDs in past 2 Thursday games. Since 2015, Evans is 3rd in NFC with 2,754 yards receiving. DT Gerald McCoy has 8.5 sacks in past 10 games vs. AFC. Since 2013, McCoy leads NFL DTs with 33.5 sacks. DE Robert Ayers has 6 sacks & 2 FFs in past 8 games vs. AFC. CB Brent Grimes has 17 PD & 3 INTs, incl. 31-yard INT-TD in past 9 home games. He leads the NFL with 70 PD and ranks fourth with 17 INTs since 2013.
PREDICTION: It certainly would do wonders for their belief factor if the Bucs managed to take down last season's Super Bowl champs on Prime-Time Thursday Night. But despite a Patriots defense that is yielding 458 yards a game, Winston may be snookered into a few of his infamous turnovers. The Pats will help by confusing him with an amorphous defense.
OUR PICK: Winner, Patriots 38-34.