Tampa Bay comes to Foxboro this Saturday in what should prove the Patriots last playoff-caliber test prior to the playoffs actually starting. Expect the Patriots to play this game like a playoff game as well. With the division not officially clinched, Bill Belichick will play everyone capable of playing and in every way play this game as if it is a one game elimination game. If they win, you may see some resting of players or caution next week against the Jets and even more the following week against Miami. But this week, expect them to try to guage exactly how much progress they’ve made in recent weeks against a very tough opponent.

On offense, the Patriots will be facing one of the better defensive units in the league in Tampa Bay. While not quite up to their Super Bowl level defense of a few years ago, the Bucs still represent one of the faster, tough to attack defensive units in the NFL.

On the ends up front is where the Bucs generate most of their pass rush. Simeon Rice and former Patriot Greg Spires are smaller ends, but very quick with lots of pass rush moves and relentless. Fortunately, a strength of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is stepping up in the pocket to avoid these type of rushers. However, if forced to wait a little longer than normal, and Tampa does have among the best pair of corners in the NFL, Rice and Spires could still find the time to get to Brady and cause havoc. In the middle, stout run defender Booger McFarland is likely out for Tampa, but Chris Hovan and Ellis Wyms are capable players. Both can rush the passer, though neither’s stats really reflect it this year. Still, with McFarland probably out, that is a lucky break for the Patriots which will hurt Tampa significantly. He is an excellent player.

The Bucs 1-gap defensive style has always favored smaller, fast linebackers and that is exactly what Tampa has. Derrick Brooks, an 8-time Pro Bowler headed for his 9th, is among the best ever of that style linebacker in the history of the NFL. Too fast to get outside of on wide runs, great in coverage, a blitzer and playmaker, Brooks is a guy you have to watch on every play. He is just an excellent all-around player who can change a game with his playmaking. In the middle, Shelton Quarles is actually the Bucs leading tackler and a solid player. The other linebacker Ryan Neece, Ronnie Lott’s son, is a solid player, but the least active of the three.

If there is a way to attack the Tampa front seven, its with a power running game. They have smaller ends whose strength isn’t run defense in Rice and Spires. Their three linebackers are weigh 235, 225 and 224 respectively. They can be overpowered at times with a patient effective running game. The problem is, with their 1-gap pentrating style and quickness, they do have a tendancy to drop backs in the backfield on occasion to create unfavorable down and distance situations. So, you may have a nice run for 7 on first down, decide to be consistent with it and run again on second down and find they penetrate effectively and drop the back for a two yard loss. Now its 3rd and 5 and they have you one dimensional like they want. For that reasons, draws, sweeps and misdirection plays may not be as effective on the Bucs, though if the Pats are going to run outside (and they’ll have to try some to keep Tampa honest), its better off to do it to the strong side with the tight end that Neece plays, as he isn’t the player Brooks is on the other side. More likely, the Pats will run mostly quick hitters and blasts and try to overpower the smaller Bucs defense.

When in passing situations, the Bucs have perhaps the best corner combo in the league with Ronde Barber, a great player, and the very solid Brian Kelly on the other side. Barber is just a great corner, one of the best in the league, if not the best. He is also an extremely dangerous playmaker and always has been. He has 5 interceptions already this year. Brian Kelly is almost as good and also a playmaker. He has 4 interceptions. The two safeties, Jermaine Phillips and former Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson, in his second tour with the Bucs, are solid, though not great players.

The key to throwing on the Bucs is probably to do it on earlier downs so its not predictable and their sub-packages aren’t in where they bring in pass rush specialist DeWayne White and let Spires and Rice tee off. Throws to the back matched up on Neece and tight ends on the safeties may be the best options, though Kelly can occasionally be beat as well. When the Bucs sub-packages are in, the Patriots may look to see who the sub-corners are matched up on, likely Troy Brown and Andre Davis, as those guys (Torie Cox and Juran Bolden) are just average players.

When the Patriots are on defense, the Bucs are easier to attack. What the Bucs will likely want to do is run Cadillac Williams, their stud rookie running back, until he’s ready to drop (or the Patriots defense is) and take the occasional long shots down the field the Patriots have had trouble defending this year. If you have watched Williams this year, its amazing how dramatically his stats have improved in some games during the fourth quarter. It seems to be the Bucs run him and run him and run him and then wear the defense down and with his speed and moves, he breaks a few longs one as the game goes into its final frame and that seals it for Tampa. That is why it’ll be critical for the Patriots to get off the field most of the time on third down early in the game so that they are still fresh later in the game.

The Patriots blitzing style of recent weeks should be effective this week. Bucs QB Chris Simms is not mobile, holds the ball too long at times, makes poor reads on occasion and has been susceptible to sacks. But, he has done a good job overall and can be an effective game manager if the Patriots don’t put an good pass rush on him. He is accurate when he has time and can pick a passive defense apart. Therefore, the Patriots must continue their strategy of recent weeks of coming after opposing quarterbacks all out. It seems likely Bill Belichick will try to shut down the run, come after Simms all out and dare him to beat the blitz on passing downs. Its unlikely he’ll do so, but it would only take one or two good throws to Joey Galloway, the Bucs receiver who seems to have found the fountain of youth at age 34 and has had an excellent year, to win a close, tough fought game.

The Bucs are going to try to control the game on the ground, take a few downfield shots and hope they hit a couple, keep it close on defense and then win it late behind Cadillac Williams. I expect a farily conservative game on both sides as these two playoff caliber teams slug it out on a cold day. Special Teams could hold the key. Both teams punters have been excellent this year, but obviously you have to like Adam Vinatierri in one of these types of games over Bucs kicker Matt Bryant. Bryant is also battling a hamstring injury and hasn’t practice much this week. Keep that in mind when he lines up to kick Saturday in cold, windy weather. Tampa does give up nearly 10 yards per punt return and has given up a kickoff return for a TD. It may be time for Tim Dwight or Bethel Johnson to break one and change the game as it seems they have been fairly close to doing so on a number of occasions recently.

In the end, this should be a slug fest. Moving the ball on Tampa will not be easy for the Patriots, but they should put a number of drives together with the way their offense has been clicking lately. Tampa also will have trouble moving the ball, their offense is far from a juggernaut. But they could hit a long pass or two. They could have an effective long drive or two if Cadillac Williams gets rolling. That is how they’ll try to win the game. But it seems likely that Matt Bryant will miss at least one field goal and the Patriots should be able to put together a few drives and win the game. I expect a close contest with the Patriots coming out on top 16-13.