Bucs know game against Panthers is for ‘all the marbles’


TAMPA, Fla. — There was no shortage of frustration in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ locker room after the team blew a golden opportunity to clinch the NFC South title at home in Sunday’s 23-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Music from the visiting locker room at Raymond James Stadium reverberated as players quietly gathered themselves.

They were outplayed at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The offense couldn’t convert on third down and turned the ball over four times, while the defense struggled with tackling and couldn’t get off the field. Even their solid punter, Jake Camarda, struggled with one of his worst games.

“We definitely stunk it up as coaches. We stunk it up as players,” said coach Todd Bowles, who said the team spent the whole first quarter in a daze and by the time they woke up, it was too late.

The loss sets up a must-win Week 18 game at the Carolina Panthers. A win clinches the division and a home game in the playoffs. As for a loss? It would end the season and leave the Bucs (8-8) with an identical record to last season when ownership and the front office hoped for improvement instead of blowing up the roster and starting over.

If the Bucs were to tie, they would need a Saints loss or tie to win the division, or the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers to lose or tie to clinch a wild-card spot.

“It’s just knowing you only get these opportunities once in a lifetime,” inside linebacker Lavonte David said. “You’ve got to know what’s at stake. … You can’t take this stuff for granted. We worked so hard to get here, and we just let it go like that.”

Players said they believed they had the right preparation — their routine was the same as it had been the past four weeks — but several felt only one of those teams showed with a ‘do or die’ mentality. A loss would have eliminated New Orleans from playoff contention, but the Bucs had a small cushion, needing to win just one of two remaining games.

“It’s a sickening feeling,” said running back Rachaad White, whose longest play of the day — an 18-yard run — ended with a lost fumble. “We came out dry, flat, no juice, no energy. They came out with energy. They hit us in the mouth, and we never fought back.”

Left tackle Tristan Wirfs doesn’t feel they were complacent but does believe they got “excited” about their four-game win streak. He insisted that he and the others “wanted this bad.”

“We still got to come out and fight and be scrappy and be chippy like we have been,” Wirfs said. “It was flat today. We can’t have that. Especially a division game. Especially for a title. Just everything. There were a lot of things that made this a big game, an important game. You can’t come out like that. That was pretty s—ty. It felt s—ty for everybody. Not a fun way to spend New Year’s Eve.”

The Panthers (2-14) were shut out for the first time in 342 games Sunday, losing 26-0 to the Jacksonville Jaguars. They are guaranteed to have the league’s worst record no matter the outcome Sunday (1 p.m. ET, FOX), but they have a young quarterback in 2023 No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young who still has something to prove as he tries to find his footing in the NFL.

“We’ve got one more week, one more opportunity to get better,” Young said Sunday.

In Week 13 when Tampa hosted Carolina, the Bucs won 21-18 as an interception by Antoine Winfield Jr. at the Tampa Bay 43-yard line with 2:21 to go sealed it.

“I know their record doesn’t show [it], but they’re really scrappy, so we’ve got to come with it next week,” wide receiver Mike Evans said.

Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield is also nursing sore ribs after a late hit from safety Tyrann Mathieu on Sunday.

Bowles said Monday that Mayfield would be ready for Sunday, but how much will the injury affect his throwing?

“It’s a division game, and they [are] going to come out swinging,” White said. “We just have to make sure we swing first.”

Bowles said that from an injury standpoint, outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett and cornerback Carlton Davis III were “trending in the right direction” and could be in play. Barrett missed the Saints game because of a groin injury and Davis because of a concussion.

“It’s for all the marbles,” Wirfs said. “It’s for a third straight division title. We can’t come out like this. … Everybody’s got to be ready. You got to put your hard hat on, bring your lunch pail because there’s no tomorrow after that.”

Source : ESPN