Despite losing six of their last seven games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have remained within striking distance of first place in the NFC South. The team's post-bye week struggles haven't eliminated the Buccaneers opportunity to achieve their goal of a third straight division title. What they have done, however, is erased most of the team's wiggle room when it comes to qualifying for the postseason.
For that reason, with six weeks to go in the regular season, quarterback Baker Mayfield believes his team should treat each remaining game as the one that could get them eliminated from Super Bowl contention.
"For me, my mindset right now – and it should be for the whole team – is we're in a playoff-mode mentality," said Mayfield on Wednesday as his team prepared to take on the 1-10 Carolina Panthers on Sunday. "We have to take care of business each week to move on and to get to where we want to go. It's a matter of we don't really have a lot of room [for error], there's no slack. We have to pick up the pace. We have to have a sense of urgency about it. I think now everybody realizes what is at stake. We have to win out."
At 4-7, the Buccaneers are trailing a pair of 5-6 teams in the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. While Tampa Bay players and coaches don't want to look past the task at hand, the schedule shows a trip to Atlanta next week, a home game against the Saints in Week 17 and a rematch with the Panthers in Charlotte in the regular-season capper. The Bucs also have remaining dates with the Green Bay Packers and Jacksonville Jaguars, but it is those four intra-division games that will likely swing the balance in the South.
"We have to win these division games to get to where we want to go and to get into the playoffs," said Mayfield. "It's a sense of urgency. It's a matter of guys doing all the treatment and getting everything we need to get done. Young guys stepping up and realizing that they're going to play a pivotal role in this final season push that we have. Everybody just has to be on board."
The Bucs had hoped to take control of the division early when they won three of their first four games, including a critical Week Four victory in New Orleans. What has followed has been a string of mostly competitive games where it was the opposition, and not the Buccaneers, who made the key plays at the end to get the victory. Neither the Saints nor the Falcons have seized control either – Atlanta just beat the Saints to put them under .500 and back in a first-place tie – but it's the Bucs who have slipped a bit more off the pace.
"Obviously, it's not what we had planned," he said. "But at a certain point, just look in the mirror – get your job fixed and try and elevate everyone else around you. There is no secret recipe besides doing your job at the highest level possible each game."
The Bucs have made the playoffs each of the past three seasons, beginning with a win in Super Bowl LV at the end of 2020 campaign and then following with division titles captured by records of 13-4 and 8-9 the past two years. Outside expectations for the 2023 team were not high following the retirement of Tom Brady, but inside team headquarters there was a belief the team could continue to win with regularity. That it hasn't happened may be an unpleasant surprise for some, but Mayfield knows the team can still face reality and find a way to achieve their goals.
"I think for an organization like this, I mean, guys can step into a place like this and just think it happens automatically, but we're facing a lot of struggles and adversity right now," he said. "A lot of self-inflicted things, but a lot of lessons that these young guys can learn from and say, 'Alright, this is why we're not winning these games.'
"Small things can really turn a game around. Those are the things you really have to focus on and get corrected for this playoff push."