Buccaneers confident they have what it takes to outlast rivals, win close NFC South race

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Buccaneers' Rachaad White runs for a touchdown
AP Photos/Chris O'Meara

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tampa Bay’s first win in more than a month has the Buccaneers feeling good about their chances of rebounding from a tough stretch to win the NFC South.

Sitting at 4-5 — a half-game behind first place New Orleans in the division standings — winning the gettable division figures to be the surest path to follow as the Bucs chase a fourth consecutive playoff berth.

Tampa Bay currently holds a head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over the Saints (5-5) and will play four of its eight remaining games within the division.

“It’s kind of like last year. We were in first place for a while, floating around .500, and then we ended up winning (the division) at the end,” receiver Mike Evans said. “It’s a similar situation this year, but we have more time. Hopefully, we can go on a win streak and separate ourselves.”

The Bucs stopped a four-game skid with a 20-6 victory over Tennessee, limiting the Titans to a pair of field goals and 209 yards of offense.

Sunday’s victory came of the heels of the defense yielding game-winning drives in the final minute of losses in two of the previous three weeks.

While it won’t be easy, the Bucs’ chances of winning the NFC South for a third straight year are heightened by the absence of a dominant team in the division.

Atlanta (4-6) is just behind second-place Tampa Bay in the standings, while Carolina occupies the cellar at 1-8. The Bucs face the Panthers twice and Falcons and Saints once each down the stretch.

“We definitely believe we can be contenders and be a playoff team. This is a good start for us,” Evans said after beating the Titans.

“It’s a one-game-at-a-time mentality for us from here on out. Control our destiny and see where it takes us,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “We have a group that’s really focused. We know what we need to do. Now it’s just about continuing to correct (mistakes) and show up on Sundays.”

Tampa Bay begins a stretch this week in which it will play four of its next five games on the road, beginning with next Sunday’s matchup against NFC West leader San Francisco.

New Orleans and Atlanta have byes, meaning a win over the 49ers would lift the Bucs into first place. A loss would drop them into a tie for second with the Falcons, one game behind the Saints.

The Bucs won the division and hosted a playoff game last season, despite finishing with a losing record (8-9).

They also were 4-5 through nine games.

“It’s the same, but it’s different. We feel different because we’re a different team. Obviously, the record and everything is the same, but we feel like we’ll be in it right to the very end. We just have to take care of our business and get on a streak,” coach Todd Bowles said.

”November and December football are very important,” Bowles added. “This is the third quarter for us. If we can do well in the third quarter and set up the fourth quarter, we feel like we can bring it home.”

WHAT’S WORKING

A week after scoring a season-high 37 points in a loss to C.J. Stroud and the Houston Texans, the Bucs only managed two touchdowns and a pair of field goals against the Titans. Still, Mayfield feels the offense is headed in the right direction.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The Bucs finally got an interception from a member of the starting secondary, with safety Antoine Winfield Jr. picking off Tennessee rookie Will Levis in the fourth quarter. While that was progress, Bucs defenders earlier wasted at least three other opportunities for interceptions.

STOCK UP

Second-year RB Rachaad White continues to flourish in an increased role in the passing game. He was only targeted three times against the Titans, but turned a first-quarter screen pass into a 43-yard TD and early Tampa Bay lead.

STOCK DOWN

Evans had a big day with six receptions for 143 yards and one TD on Sunday. He also dropped a pass in the end zone, attributing the mistake to losing focus because he was thinking about which fan he wanted to give the ball to.

“Mike’s mentally tough. If he drops one, get right back to him because we know he’s going to catch it again,” Bowles said. “He’s going to be open multiple times. If we keep feeding him, we know he’s going to come through for us.”

INJURIES

Mayfield banged his hand on the helmet of a defender, but did not leave the game. Bowles said the quarterback was “good” Monday.

KEY NUMBER

10 — The Bucs’ offense had 10 plays of 15-plus yards against Tennessee.

NEXT STEPS

The Bucs return to San Francisco, looking to atone for an embarrassing 35-7 loss to the 49ers in Brock Purdy’s first NFL start last December.

“It wasn’t pretty, so we are looking avenge that and play some of our best ball because we’re going to need it against a team like San Fran,” Evans said.

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