The Buccaneers have an opportunity to go into their first postseason berth in 13 seasons with some momentum as they face a familiar foe in the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at home. They'll close out the regular season with a chance to go 11-5 after going 7-9 a season ago.
It'd be quite the feat.
"We're going to play to win," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Eleven and five, that's very rare. To have a chance to get to 11-5, keep that seeding – we want that seeding just for pride. We don't care who we play, it's more for pride. I'd probably have to beat some guys in the head with a stick to try and get them not to play anyway. I talked to them about it before and [they said], 'I'm playing.' We're going to practice and play like everything depends on it. It's not going to be an easy game, either."
Facing a division rival for the second time in three weeks means pretty much anything can go – but there are a few things and few players you might want to keep an eye on in the process.
1. WR Mike Evans
It's no secret that all eyes will be on Evans as he attempts to become the only player in NFL history to start his career with seven consecutive 1,000-yard season. He and Randy Moss are currently the only players to do it for their first six but Evans now has the opportunity to stand alone in the NFL record books.
And Arians hasn't made a secret of his desire for Evans to attain the milestone. It seemed out of reach as recently as a week ago, needing 221 yards to get to 1,000 heading into Week 16 against the Lions in Detroit. But that was before quarterback Tom Brady got on board with Arians' desire to help Evans. See, as a head coach, Arians didn't want to influence his quarterback and have him force anything. But in a blowout win where Brady himself got pulled at halftime because the Bucs had all but locked the game up, Evans went off for 181 yards on 10 catches. He also caught two touchdowns, surpassing his previous single-season high of 12, recording 13 on the year. Now, Evans sits at 960 yards this season. Make sure you're watching carefully to see if and when Evans crosses the 40-yard threshold.
2. RB Ronald Jones
Speaking of milestones, running back Ronald Jones is staring down his first 1,000-yard season even after missing time on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Arians said Jones would be active for the last game of the season, needing an even 100-yard game to reach 1,000 yards.
"We need to get him going," said Arians. "It's a totally different speed than practice. He's looked great in practice – he's catching the ball really OK with that thing on his hand, kind of like Chris [Godwin] did. It was a struggle at first, but he's getting better at it. We need his explosiveness out there and hopefully we'll get him a ton [of reps] this week."
Jones has already had four 100-yard games this season, including setting a career-high of 192 yards in a single game against Carolina, thanks to a 98-yard touchdown run on a handoff from Brady at the two-yard line. Moral of the story: 100 yards on Sunday is feasible for Jones, especially with Arians 'jonesing' to get him there.
3. CB Sean Murphy-Bunting
The team's top corner in Carlton Davis could be looking at his second missed game thanks to a groin injury he suffered the last time the team played the Falcons in Week 15. Officially, Davis is ruled as 'doubtful' for Sunday's rematch but that was the same designation he had going into the game against the Lions last week which he ultimately did not play in. There would be no sense in rushing him back before the postseason, either.
Should Davis not be able to go, Murphy-Bunting could be relegated to the outside a lot more opposite Jamel Dean. The pair of them will be something to keep an eye on as the Buccaneers continue to figure out which combination of corners works in the event they're without Davis. Murphy-Bunting has been on an upward trajectory the past few weeks and Atlanta will once again be without wide receiver Julio Jones. His counterpart, Calvin Ridley, looks like a true number one receiver himself though so the Bucs' secondary will still get a test as the Falcons come to town.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 17 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
4. OLB Jason Pierre-Paul
One time for the birthday guy. Pierre-Paul turned 32 on Friday and has shown absolutely no signs of slowing down as he stares down yet another double-digit sack season. He is currently at 9.5 on the year and will be wanting to cross a threshold of his own and get to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan at least once this game. The good news is he has 5.0 sacks against the Falcons in five games against them as a Buccaneer. That bodes well, I'd say.
There is a but, though. Pierre-Paul will be without his usual bookend on the other side of the line as outside linebacker Shaq Barrett was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Friday, keeping him out of Sunday's game. The pair, when on the field at the same time, force opposing offensive lines to make some tough decisions when deciding who to block or double-team. Outside linebacker Anthony Nelson will fill in for Barrett opposite JPP, though, and is coming off his first career sack which he got in Detroit. He won't be a walk in the park for a depleted Falcons o-line at all.
5. ILB Lavonte David
David will also be without his usual partner-in-crime as inside linebacker Devin White is also on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. It means David will likely be calling the defense and keeping them in line – which, in reality, he does a lot of, anyway. What White brings is the vocal component. Where David is reserved, White is loud and boisterous, always trying to get his teammates' energy up. David leads by example (one that national pundits seemingly still ignore, mind you) but can also turn it on when need be. I'd venture to say the last game of the regular season before heading into the his first ever playoff berth might be the time to bring out the juice.
As far as actual linebacker responsibilities, it will be inside linebacker Kevin Minter who will fill in for White. Minter may know this Todd Bowles defense better than anyone given the amount of time he's spent in it and shouldn't miss a beat when stepping in.