TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The first-place Tampa Bay Buccaneers can’t afford to take anything for granted in the weak NFC South.
Not even with Tom Brady at quarterback.
The Bucs, at least on paper, appear talented and skilled enough to hold off Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans in a tight division race in which all four teams have losing records with a month left in the regular season.
The reality, though, is a sputtering Brady-led offense and a normally reliable defense weakened by injuries hasn’t shown consistent signs of being good enough to get their act together for a strong stretch run.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s humbling 35-7 road loss at San Francisco, coach Todd Bowles declared it’s time for his players to “decide what kind of team we want to be.”
“We can’t be one set of Bucs and another set of Bucs. It has to mean something,” Bowles said of the inconsistency threatening to undermine the season. “We have a one-game lead with four games to go.
“Either we want it or we don’t.”
Twice in the past three weeks, the Bucs (6-7) have failed to take advantage of opportunities to put some distance between themselves and the second-place Falcons (5-8) and Panthers (5-8).
Atlanta, which has lost its past two, gained ground Sunday despite having a bye last week. Carolina has won two in a row — five of six overall, including a 21-3 home win over Tampa Bay — to get back in the race.
The Bucs, who are 3-1 within the division, faces red-hot Cincinnati at home next Sunday before playing at Arizona on Christmas Day.
Ultimately, though, the NFC South figures to be decided when the Bucs face the Panthers at home and Falcons on the road in the last two weeks of the regular season.
“It’s about doing the right things and following through and finishing it up,” Bowles said Monday of what the Bucs need to do to close strong, win the division and guarantee themselves a home game in the playoffs.
“The talking part is kind of over,” the coach added. “It’s kind of about producing at this point in time.”
The offensive line did not allow a sack for the third time this season. Dating to 2020, when Brady joined the Bucs, Tampa Bay has held opponents without a sack a league-high 14 times. Brady attempted 55 passes against the 49ers, who despite not having any sacks finished with seven quarterback hits and two interceptions.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The defense, once the toughest in the NFL to run against, yielded 209 yards rushing. It was the second-most Tampa Bay has allowed in a game since Bowles — the one-time head coach of the Jets — joined the Bucs as defensive coordinator in 2019.
Little went right in one of the most lopsided losses of Brady’s 23-year career. Bowles cited Deven Thompkins’ debut as the team’s return man as one of the highlights. The rookie averaged 24.6 yards on five kickoff returns, including a long of 54. He returned two punts for 21 yards.
LT Donovan Smith was penalized for holding, nullifying a touchdown reception for the second straight game. The eighth-year pro has been flagged for holding a career-high six times this season.
A secondary already playing without injured starters Antoine Winfield, Jr., Mike Edwards and Sean Murphy-Bunting lost CB Jamel Dean (toe) against the 49ers. DT Vita Vea (calf strain) and LB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (hip) also left Sunday’s game. Bowles said it was too soon to predict their status for this week.
100 — Brady’s 8-yard TD pass to Russell Gage was the seven-time Super Bowl champion’s 100th since joining the Bucs. He joined Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Fran Tarkenton and Kurt Warner as the only quarterbacks to throw at least 100 TD passes for multiple teams.
Tampa Bay hosts Cincinnati on Sunday. The Bengals (9-4) have won five in a row.
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