TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Little has come easy this season for Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Despite their struggles, though, they can repeat as NFC South champions and guarantee themselves a home playoff game by beating the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
“It always means something when you’re playing for something at the end of the year,” coach Todd Bowles said after the Bucs (7-8) rallied to retain a one-game lead in the division with a 19-16 overtime victory at Arizona.
“You want to play good December football and you want to be playing meaningful games,” Bowles added. “Next week, they need it and we need it, so it’s going to be a good battle.”
Had the Bucs failed to overcome a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit against the Cardinals, they would be facing potential elimination this weekend when Tampa Bay hosts Carolina, which won an earlier meeting between the division rivals 21-3.
As it stands, a victory over the Panthers (6-9) will give the first-place Bucs consecutive division titles for the first time in franchise history.
A loss won’t knock Tampa Bay out of contention, however Carolina would pull even in the standings and be in a position to claim its first NFC South title since 2015 with a win the following week at New Orleans.
“This team has a lot of resilience,” said Brady, who rebounded from playing poorly while Arizona built a 16-6 lead to tie the score in the closing minutes of regulation and then orchestrate the 58th game-winning drive of his career in overtime.
“We fight hard — 7-8, that’s not where we want to be,” Brady added. “But we’ve got a chance to win a championship game next week.”
The Bucs have struggled to run the ball consistently, ranking last among 32 teams. RB Leonard Fournette, however, provided a spark against Arizona, rushing for 72 yards and gaining another 90 on a team-high nine receptions. Rookie RB Rachaad White made the most of limited opportunities, averaging 5 yards per carry on seven attempts and catching four passes for 17 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The low-scoring Bucs finished with 396 yards total offense, but only produced one TD against the Cardinals. They were 6 of 17 in third-down situations, which has been a familiar theme.
WR Russell Gage signed a three-year, $30 million contract in free agency last winter and has been slowed much of his first season with Tampa Bay by injuries. Over the past three games, though, he has begun to make a difference. He had five catches for 65 yards against the Cardinals, with 55 of those yards coming in the second half and overtime.
The offensive line continues to be beset by injuries. Josh Wells is the latest casualty, with the backup tackle departing with a knee injury while filling in for injured starter Donovan Smith at Arizona. If Smith and Wells aren’t able to play against Carolina, first-year pro Brandon Walton figures to make his first start since Week 3 against Green Bay.
RT Tristan Wirfs returned against the Cardinals after missing three games due to a high ankle sprain. Bowles said Wirfs aggravated the injury when someone fell on the back on the third-year pro’s ankle. However, it’s too soon to tell how that might impact his availability this week. Smith’s status will be determined later in the week, too.
250 — Brady on Sunday night became the first player in NFL history with 250 career regular-season wins. Adam Vinatieri (221), George Blanda (209), Gary Anderson (201) and Jerry Rice (194) round out the top five all-time.
Tampa Bay hosts Carolina with an opportunity to clinch a division title for only the eighth time in the club’s 47-season history.
“We know the importance of the game,” Bowles said. “That doesn’t have to be harped on.”