GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady and Arizona’s Trace McSorley are two quarterbacks making their Christmas Day debut on Sunday.
That’s about where the similarities end.
The Bucs (6-8) have had a tough season but are somehow still clinging to a one-game lead in the mediocre NFC South. The 45-year-old Brady will be making his 331st career start, giving Tampa Bay a wealth of experience as it tries to snap a two-game skid.
As for McSorley, he isn’t just making his Christmas Day debut, but his NFL starting debut.
The Cardinals (4-10) are limping down the stretch, turning to the team’s third-string quarterback. The 27-year-old McSorley has been pushed into a starting role after injuries to Kyler Murray and Colt McCoy.
Despite the long odds, the former Penn State standout says he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“(Brady is) the G.O.A.T. and there’s no two ways to put that, but I’ve just got to focus on what I can control,” McSorley said. “I’m going against their defense, not against him, so that’s kind of the way I try and look at it. But it is cool to kind of look back and realize that I’m starting against him the first time.”
Tampa Bay has dropped three of its past four games, including a 34-23 loss to Cincinnati last weekend. Luckily for the Bucs, the Panthers, Saints and Falcons have all had their problems, and sit one game back of Tampa Bay at 5-9.
“Any division you win, regardless of whether you’re 17-0 or whether you’re 4-13, you win the division and you have a division banner,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. “Then you try out for your next goal to get to the Super Bowl. Our first goal is to win the division, so we’re trying to do that. If we can win the division, then we’ll try and focus on getting playoff games and winning the Super Bowl.”
McSorley was 7-of-15 passing for 95 yards and two interceptions after McCoy left last weekend’s 24-15 loss to the Broncos with a concussion.
Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said he expects a better performance now that McSorley will get all of the practice reps with first-team offense.
“I hate to use the term gamer, but he’s got a lot of moxie,” Kingsbury said. “He plays with a lot of confidence. Teammates respond to that well. He’s mobile and can move around. He had a couple of throws he’d like to have back, but he had a couple scoring drives and like I said after the game, I just want to see how he does with some reps.”
HELP FOR TRACE
McSorley might be inexperienced, but he does have some good players around him.
Three-time All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins, running back James Conner and receiver Marquise Brown should all be on the field on Sunday, giving the Cardinals their three top playmakers for one of the few times this season.
Hopkins could still hit 1,000 yards receiving this season despite missing the first six games after being suspended for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Conner has run for 268 yards over his past three games.
The biggest problem for the Cardinals is along the offensive line. At least three starters will be out on Sunday and it will be four depending on the status of right tackle Kelvin Beachum, who is battling knee and ankle injuries.
Brady has been among the NFL’s best at protecting the football over the course of a record-breaking 23-year career that’s included seven Super Bowl championships. The league’s all-time leading passer turned the ball over just four times in Tampa Bay’s first 11 games this season, including only two interceptions.
Over the past three games, though, he has seven giveaways, including two picks and a pair of fumbles in last weekend’s 34-23 loss to the Bengals.
“Turnovers hurt any team. It’s hurting us big time, whether it’s the quarterback, whether it’s a fumble by the running backs, whether it’s special teams or whether it’s defense not getting them,” Bowles said.
It’s a strange dichotomy for the Cardinals’ defense: Even though several individual players are having good seasons, the group is ranked dead last in the NFL in scoring defense.
Veteran defensive lineman J.J. Watt has had his best season in years with 9 1/2 sacks. Safety Budda Baker was voted to the Pro Bowl and leads the team with 102 tackles. Second-year linebacker Zaven Collins has taken a big jump from his rookie year and is second on the team with 87 tackles.
But as a whole, the Cardinals are giving up 26.6 points per game, which is 32nd out of 32 teams.
While Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans is closing in on becoming the first player in NFL history to begin a career with at least 1,000 yards receiving in nine consecutive seasons, Chris Godwin has a team-leading 81 catches for 785 yards and three touchdowns. What’s even more impressive about what he’s done is he’s less than a year removed from surgery to repair both the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his right knee. He has five-plus receptions in 11 straight games, the longest active streak in the league.
“It’s just self-determination. … He tried to get back as fast as he could. He didn’t take days off. He worked overtime, triple-time probably,” Bowles said.
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.