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Bucs blow out Eagles, but tougher tests loom for the defending champs

TAMPA – It was more of a tune-up rather than an earnest test to gauge the readiness of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the playoff run that will determine whether they will successfully defend their Super Bowl crown.

Tune-up survived. The Bucs blasted the Philadelphia Eagles, 31-15, in an NFC wild card playoff on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium to advance to the divisional round.

And reminiscent of last year’s playoff trek, the Bucs’ defense was ready to rumble. It took advantage of a pedestrian Eagles offense to ensure that the outcome was never in doubt. Tampa Bay (14-4) limited the Eagles to 17 yards in the first quarter – the lowest output by Philadelphia in any quarter all season – and it was just the beginning.

The Bucs gave up two late TDs and a two-point conversion to chip into the margin after it was 31-zip, but by and large they made life miserable for young Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts. The running threat that makes Hurts so dangerous was largely contained. He threw two interceptions. The Eagles converted just five of 14 third downs.

No, there was no coming back from all of that.

Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady passes against the Eagles on Sunday in Tampa.

Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady passes against the Eagles on Sunday in Tampa.

Both of the picks came on outstanding individual efforts. Late in the second quarter, safety Mike Edwards dashed to pick off a pass in the end zone just beyond a pylon. In the third quarter, Shaq Barrett leapt to bat a Hurts pass – only to haul in the deflection himself — in the open field that set up a TD.

That defensive performance is just what Tom Brady and Bucs’ offense needed while entering the playoffs with their top two running backs – Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones – out with injuries, and the wide receiver corps trying to pick up the slack after losing playmakers Chris Godwin (torn ACL) and Antonio Brown (ankle, drama) last month to season-ending setbacks.

Brady threw for 271 yards and had TD strikes to Mike Evans (9 catches, 117 yards) and Rob Gronkowski (5 catches, 31 yards), proving that there are still a few bodies on offense to work with. Meanwhile, Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Gio Bernard capably handled the bulk of the backfield duty.

But they left the blowout with another layer of questions about health. This time, it’s Tristan Wirfs, the second-year right tackle who on Friday was named first-team all-pro for the first time. Wirfs went down on the game’s opening possession with an ankle injury and was ineffective during an attempted return late in the second quarter before being ruled out for the second half.

Tampa Bay, which allowed four sacks of Brady on Sunday, is holding its breath that the injury to Wirfs isn’t bad enough to significantly hamper him during the rest of the playoffs. Wirfs is the anchor of a line that has protected Brady well and had the most consistent health of any unit all season for a team ravaged by injuries on both sides of the ball.

The Bucs were well enough to handle an overmatched Eagles team (9-9) that they defeated in Week 6. But it remains to be seen whether they are healthy enough to deal with what comes next: Dallas, Arizona or the Los Angeles Rams.

In other words, a more formidable test looms for a Bucs squad riddled with question marks.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bucs blow out Eagles, but tougher tests loom for defending champs

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