Tonight’s Thursday night game has all the makings of a high scoring affair. Not only do the Patriots and Buccaneers have plenty of fire power offensively, but both teams have struggled defensively in the early part of 2017. Much has been made about the Patriot defensive struggles as we’re in the era of the hot take and people are discussing writing them off. By now, you’d think we’d realize that if any team has earned the benefit of the doubt that they could bounce back over the past 15 years, it would be the Patriots. By the end of the year, things should be smoother on that side of the ball. This should be a closely contested battle and very well could come down to which quarterback has the ball last.
The last quarterback you would want to see in those situations would be Tom Brady. Despite losing Julian Edelman, Brady looks as sharp as ever and now goes up against a secondary that has been carved up by Case Keenum and Eli Manning in the past two weeks. With the Buccaneer defense performing well against the run, it wouldn’t be surprising if Brady threw it 40 plus times tonight.
While he’s banged up entering this one, Rob Gronkowski going up against a Buccaneer linebacker corps with issues of their own could have a big performance even if he has limited snap count. Unless the inactive list later tonight says otherwise, he remains a must play in all fantasy formats. Chris Hogan has turned it on the past few weeks and also seems to have earned Brady’s trust in the redzone. With a floor of six to eight targets, Hogan is also worth starting in all formats. Brandin Cooks has seen less targets than Hogan, but remains a big play waiting to happen. With Cooks expected to run the majority of his routes on the side of Vernon Hargreaves, it could be one of those games where Cooks puts up monster numbers. With the way the Buccaneers have struggled covering the slot to this point, Danny Amendola is also a receiver who is worth a look in PPR or deeper leagues.
At running back, the Patriots remain as uncertain as ever. Mike Gillislee has received the bulk of the carries, but for fantasy formats can be very touchdown dependent. James White and Dion Lewis have both been involved in the ground game as well. White is the safer fantasy play of the three for this game, as his usage as a pass catcher has been more stabilized.
For the Buccaneers, things usually come down to how Jameis Winston performs on a week-to-week basis. Possibly the best example of a “gunslinger” in the current NFL, Winston will throw a handful beautiful passes every game, but is also capable of throwing a few that can leave fans scratching their head. Going against a Patriots defense which opposing quarterbacks have seen plenty of success against, he looks to be in a very fantasy friendly spot this week. The same goes for his pass catchers.
Mike Evans is obviously a must start every week, and as Winston’s top target that will certainly remain the case in this one. DeSean Jackson to this point hasn’t displayed the chemistry we’d hope to of seen with Winston , but Jackson’s performance has always been a little hit or miss. On a national stage with everyone watching, my guess is Jackson will bounce back in a big way tonight. Another receiver to watch is Adam Humphries. To this point, he has seen as many targets as Jackson, and with Eric Rowe expected to be out, Humphries will have a nice matchup int he slot. With the chance of seeing six to eight targets, Humphries could be an intriguing play in deep fantasy leagues. Both Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard have had roles in the passing game so far, but Brate is the more reliable option for fantasy purposes. Howard spends a much higher percentage of his snaps as a blocker, and Brate has shown over the past few years what he can do as a receiver. Brate could serve as a difference maker in the passing game tonight.
The Buccaneers running game is a tough one to predict this week. Doug Martin returns from suspension, but on a short week there is no guarantee of how he will be used. What is certain is that opposing backs have had success running and catching the ball so far against the Patriots. While Martin could be in line for double digit touches, don’t be stunned if Jacquizz Rodgers is the primary back in this one. Both backs have pass catching ability, so if you’re in a bind due to the bye weeks, the potential is there for a decent return.
Given that I think this one will come down to the wire, this to me comes down to which quarterback I trust most in crunch time. While I’m high on Winston, the possibility of a throw or two during the game which could put the Buccaneers defense in a tough spot is hard to ignore. For that reason, my prediction is Patriots 35 Buccaneers (+5.5) 31.