TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Todd Bowles is adamant. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have to stop beating themselves with mistakes if they’re going to turn their season around.
Despite losing six of seven games following a promising 3-1 start, a third straight NFC South title and a fourth consecutive playoff berth remain within reach if the Bucs (4-7) finish strong over the next six weeks.
The stretch run begins Sunday against last-place Carolina (1-10), which has the NFL’s worst record and is playing for the first time since firing coach Frank Reich 11 games into his first season leading the Panthers and No. 1 overall draft pick Bryce Young.
The Bucs will also close the season on the road against Carolina in January. But the way Tampa Bay has been losing, Bowles knows his team has to fix what’s ailing themselves before they can expect to be successful.
“We can’t play the Bucs plus the opposition,” Bowles said, reiterating that self-inflicted, untimely mistakes and breakdowns — whether it be on offense or defense — are holding the team back.
“It’s got to start Sunday. We don’t really care if it was a 12-0 team or a 1-10 team — we’ve got to start with ourselves. We’ve got to play hard, no matter who we’re playing on Sunday,” Bowles stressed. “The urgency has got to be there, no matter who’s on the other side of the field.”
For the second time in just over a year, the Panthers are facing Tampa Bay shortly after the in-season firing of a head coach. Carolina let Matt Rhule go in October 2022, two weeks before upsetting Tom Brady and the Bucs 21-3 in Charlotte.
Interim coach Chris Tabor will lead the Panthers following last Monday’s firing of Reich.
Bowles doesn’t feel playing a team making its debut under an interim coach changes the challenge for Tampa Bay.
“Chris is a great coach. He’s been a great special teams coach, he’ll be a good head coach,” Bowles said. “You can’t revamp your team in a week, so you concentrate on the scheme. I’m sure they’ll tweak some things, but we’ve got to worry about the things we can correct ourselves and go out and play them and see what happens.”
Brady retired from the Bucs after last season, however the Panthers will still see a familiar face on the field leading the Tampa Bay offense — former Carolina quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield appeared in seven games for the Panthers a year ago, going 1-5 as a starter, before finishing the season with the Los Angeles Rams.
“I’m excited for Bake to see him having success over there,” Carolina center Bradley Bozeman said. “Just hope he doesn’t have as much success against us on Sunday.”
TABOR IN CHARGE
Tabor will serve as the team’s interim head coach for the remainder of the season. Tabor has served as an interim coach once before when he subbed in for a game in 2021 with the Chicago Bears when Matt Nagy had COVID-19.
Tabor inherits an almost impossible situation and has no real chance of landing a full-time gig after the season.
“In this business, the NFL train is always moving, and the NFL monster will eat you at any time,” Tabor said. “And you need to be prepared and you need to take the proper steps to set yourself up for success. And that’s what we’re trying to work on right now.”
As for his coaching style, Tabor said: “I’m going to coach loose and I’m gonna coach to have fun because that’s the only way I know in order to be successful. That’s kind of how I’ve always kind of lived and played and coached sports, so I’m going to stay with it.”
BROWN CALLING PLAYS FOR CAROLINA
Offensive coordinator Thomas Brown will resume play-calling duties for Carolina.
Brown was given control of the offense for a three-week period earlier this season, but the Panthers struggled and Reich retook control. During Brown’s brief tenure calling plays, the Panthers averaged just 11.3 points, 237.3 yards and 16.3 first downs per game.
The Panthers offense is 30th in the league in total yards and 29th in scoring and struggles to protect Young, so Brown has his work cut out for him. Carolina has allowed 43 sacks this season and Young is constantly under pressure.
The Bucs will play four of their remaining six games within the NFC South. Entering Sunday they trail division co-leaders Atlanta and New Orleans by one game. In addition to facing the Panthers twice, Tampa Bay will also play the Falcons (5-6) and Saints (5-6) once each down the stretch.
“My mindset right now — and it should be for the whole team — is we’re in a playoff-mode mentality,” Mayfield said.
“We have to pick up the pace. We have to have a sense of urgency about it,” the quarterback added. “I think everybody realizes what is at stake. We have to win out. We have to win these division games to get to where we want to go and to get into the playoffs.”
Tampa Bay has won the division the past two seasons, including with a losing record in 2022.
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