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Bucs, Eagles take markedly different paths to playoff rematch

TAMPA — The shelf life of their Monday night matchup in Week 3 has long since expired. In a week-to-week league, a nearly four-month-old scrap has little bearing on a playoff rematch.

Since that 25-11 Philadelphia triumph against Tampa Bay 16 Mondays ago, the Eagles and Bucs have taken radically different trajectories to the postseason. The Bucs arrive at Raymond James Stadium on a late-season surge, the Eagles on a late-season swoon.

“Just going through an entire season,” Bucs receiver Chris Godwin said, “figuring out who you are, going through the ups and downs of a season, things have changed in a lot of ways.”

All of which makes Monday night’s encounter — the sixth Eagles-Bucs playoff meeting and second in three seasons — all the more intriguing. Six weeks ago, one might have projected the Eagles for a high playoff seed and the Bucs for a high draft pick. But Philadelphia (11-6) has lost five of its last six games, with three defeats coming to non-playoff teams.

The Bucs (9-8) have won five of their last six. So what changed?

“We’ve gotten better,” Bucs second-team All-Pro receiver Mike Evans said.

In the Bucs’ case, that’s the succinct version — and the spot-on one. Notwithstanding the offensive malaise of the season’s final two weeks, Todd Bowles’ team has congealed in a way few could have envisioned when it was wincing its way through a stretch of six losses in seven games.

The 41 rushing yards it managed in the first clash with the Eagles was a season-low. While still in the league basement statistically, the Bucs have averaged 102.5 yards on the ground in their last six contests, and second-year tailback Rachaad White (990 rushing, 549 receiving yards) has evolved into a dynamic dual threat.

Meantime, Baker Mayfield has put together his best regular season as a pro (4,044 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, 64.3% completion rate), and first-year coordinator Dave Canales has grown into the gig, remaining unflinching in his devotion to the run.

“We’ve evolved so much,” Godwin said.

“That (first Eagles matchup) was really early in the season,” Canales added. “We kind of really grew and evolved into this offense that we are now. Now, the plan is to just get back into our rhythm of our pass game; we’ve been kind of hit and miss the last couple of weeks.”

On the other side, the unit Philadelphia gashed for 201 rushing yards in that Week 3 game now is younger and healthier. Cornerback Carlton Davis and rookie defensive tackle Calijah Kancey missed that game with injuries, cornerback Jamel Dean left with a shoulder issue, and rookie edge rusher YaYa Diaby (25 defensive snaps) hadn’t yet broken out.

Now, the corners are healthy and the rookies have evolved into havoc-wreaking forces (11½ combined sacks) in the rotation.

“We don’t use injuries as an excuse,” Bowles said. “But we’re healthier than we were before.”

Philly, by contrast, is fibrillating.

After a 10-1 start, Eagles fans’ lone fear was an Icarus complex, that their beloved birds were soaring too close to the sun too soon. Now, the figurative wings are in danger of being singed by the dumpster fire into which the organization has regressed.

After surrendering 75 total points in consecutive losses to the 49ers and Cowboys in early December, embattled coach Nick Sirianni announced former Lions coach (and ex-Patriots defensive coordinator) Matt Patricia would replace Sean Desai as defensive play-caller.

Things have gotten no better. The Eagles, who surrendered fewer than 100 rushing yards in eight of their first nine games, have allowed 136.7 in their last six. Moreover, the back end of the secondary is badly banged up, and five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay is just now returning from mid-December knee surgery.

Things seem equally grisly on offense, starting with the dislocated middle finger on quarterback Jalen Hurts’ throwing hand. Hurts, who has thrown five interceptions in his last four games, will play Monday. Leading receiver A.J. Brown (knee), who erased all Eagles-related content from his Instagram account Friday, is out.

And tailback D’Andre Swift, who ran for 130 yards against the Bucs in the first meeting, hasn’t had a 100-yard performance since. In fact, no Eagle has.

“They’ve just hit a rough patch, but they’ve still got that big offensive line, they’ve still got Jalen Hurts, got great running backs,” Bucs co-defensive coordinator Larry Foote said.

“I’ve got a ton of respect for Swift; the more I’ve (studied) him this week, this guy is special. He is elite, so it’s going to be a big challenge.”

And perhaps one very strange sequel.

“They’re going to change up some stuff, we’re going to change up some stuff,” Evans said. “We’re a little different; we were trying to find our identity early in the season. I’m definitely looking forward to this opportunity.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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