Buccaneers begin title defense by dominating Eagles as Jalen Hurts struggles

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers answered many questions about their postseason preparedness with a dominant wild-card victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

On the flip side, following a 31-15 loss to the Buccaneers, the Eagles enter their offseason with major questions after they were outplayed in all phases of the game. Their biggest question is with quarterback Jalen Hurts.

The Bucs have no such concerns. Tom Brady was his typically efficient self despite taking hits, completing 29 of 37 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns. Mike Evans was his main man, catching nine passes for 118 yards and a touchdown, stepping up for a depleted receiving corps and with running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones out Sunday.

It was Brady's 35th playoff victory of his career and his fifth straight since coming to Tampa, as the Bucs try to make it back-to-back Super Bowl titles.

The Buccaneers gave Jalen Hurts and the Eagles fits all day. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
The Buccaneers gave Jalen Hurts and the Eagles fits all day. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)

Hurts was picked twice and misfired on a fourth-down pass, killing a few promising drives. He certainly wasn't the only issue — Philly's defense and 2020 draft classmate Jalen Reagor also had rough days at the office. Hurts also appeared to be injured in the game.

First and foremost, the Eagles will have to figure out Hurts going forward.

On one hand, the Eagles stuck with Hurts and didn't go to backup Gardner Minshew, suggesting Hurts remains the most likely starter in 2022, barring a surprising trade opportunity. He racked up 258 passing yards, mostly in garbage time, and finally started connecting with 2021 first-rounder DeVonta Smith after he was kept quiet early. But the Eagles can't feel comfortable with where Hurts is in his development, especially when they have three first-round draft picks in April.

The Buccaneers scored on three of their first four drives, despite losing All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs to an ankle injury, taking a 17-0 lead and ringing up more first downs (15) at that point than the Eagles had yards from scrimmage (12).

The Eagles had their chances to make a dent in the score. They converted one fourth down on their fourth offensive series, but on fourth-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 37-yard line, Hurts couldn't connect with Reagor, resulting in a turnover on downs.

Philadelphia sacked Brady three times in the first half and forced two straight three-and-outs on the Bucs' final two possessions of the half. But Hurts was picked by Mike Edwards in the end zone, ending the Eagles' most promising drive of the game to that point.

The Eagles were shut out in the first half for only the second time in 47 playoff games, with the last time coming in 1996.

Even after forcing a punt on the opening possession of the third quarter, the Eagles couldn't capitalize. Reagor fumbled a punt return at the Philadelphia 48-yard line, and five plays later, Brady hit Rob Gronkowski for a wide-open 2-yard touchdown, upping the lead to 24-0.

The TD pass was Brady's 84th in the playoffs, the most all time. Gronkowski's 15 playoff TD catches now puts him second all time in NFL postseason history, behind only Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice.

It got worse for Philly.

On the next series, Hurts threw an interception off his back foot, not seeing pass rusher Shaq Barrett, who had dropped into coverage. Barrett ran it back 17 yards, and on the Bucs' next play on offense, Brady hit Mike Evans on a 36-yard TD to make it a full-on rout.

Hurts led the Eagles on two late scoring drives to make the score look more respectable, but it was just window dressing for a disappointing result.

Hurts struggled in both of his games this season against the Bucs and had a few other forgettable outings, such as in losses to the Giants and 49ers. Overall, he took a step up in Year 2 after awkwardly being slotted in as a replacement for Carson Wentz in 2020.

Hurts still lacks consistency as a passer, often overthrowing his targets or throwing off-balance. Some of that can be blamed on so-so pass protection, but Hurts' inconsistent mechanics — especially when facing pressure — have not yet been cleaned up enough to make him a no-doubt, long-term starter yet.

For now, Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni appears to be backing Hurts.

While the Bucs' season keeps rolling along, the Eagles now enter an offseason that will tell us just how much they view Hurts as the possible franchise quarterback.