On Wednesday, Head Coach Todd Bowles was asked if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' upcoming game against the visiting Carolina Panthers had the urgency of a playoff game. He took it a step further.
"Well, it is a playoff game," said Bowles. "They need it and we need it, so it's essentially a playoff game. Our playoff games started last Sunday when we won, so this Sunday will be the same."
The sentiment is one you hear a lot at this time of the year, and it's meaning is clear. When one more loss will cost your team a chance at its ultimate goal, a championship, then you are essentially in an elimination round. The Buccaneers aren't quite there as they head into the season's 17th weekend – there would still be a path to the playoffs if the Panthers get the win on Sunday – but they will lose control on their quest to win a second consecutive NFC South title.
After winning the Super Bowl at the end of the 2020 season and piling up a team-record 13 regular-season wins last year, the Buccaneers haven't found the same level of success in 2022, particularly on offense. Tampa Bay has not won three consecutive games at any point this year, and their per-game scoring is down by close to two touchdowns over the previous two seasons. Roster changes, lineup shifts and injuries have made the season a struggle at various points, but thanks to a depressed NFC South overall, the Buccaneers goals are still within reach. The Bucs just need to start reaching for them soon.
The Buccaneers can clinch the division with a win over Carolina, which would lock them into the NFC's fourth seed and a first-round home game. It would also render their Week 18 game at Atlanta virtually meaningless. If the Panthers win, they will draw even with the Buccaneers in the standings and will have the tiebreaker thanks to a head-to-head sweep. In that scenario, the Bucs could only recapture the South if they beat the Falcons while the Panthers lost in New Orleans on the final weekend.
Quarterback Tom Brady, who knows more about winning playoff berths than any other in NFL history knows that there's no time to hold anything back.
"We have an opportunity now to do something really positive and that's beat a team that's been playing well," said Brady. "I think they've won four of five or something like that. They're playing hard, they run the ball well, they're good on defense, really well prepared. It's a big challenge, it's a great opportunity and you don't take it for granted. You just go out there and you cut it loose and you play your best. That's what this team has an opportunity to do."
The Buccaneers' offense hasn't been able to generate nearly many explosive plays as it did in 2020 and 2021, and Brady's yards per attempt (6.2) and yards per completion (9.4) would easily be the lowest he has produced since he became a starter in 2001. Brady and Mike Evans, in particular, haven't been able to hook up on as many intermediate and deep balls as they did before 2022. Tampa Bay's defense, one of the best in the NFL at creating turnovers in Todd Bowles' first three seasons with the team, has just 16 in 15 games, tied for the fifth-lowest total in the league. From his 19 previous playoff seasons, Brady knows there are usually multiple issues for a team to overcome in order to make it that far, and that's what the Bucs must do now before it's too late.
"I think the important part is it's something that's earned," said Brady. "There's nothing given, and there's nothing you really take for granted. Every year is something different, and I think obviously this year has been…for all of us, [we've] dealt with some injuries and dealt with a lot of different lineup changes and some tough games and a lot of tough calls and close calls."
As for the possibility of getting more out of his usually robust connection with Evans, Brady says the receiver is as talented as ever and it's on him to get the ball into his hands.
"I think everything has been a little…this year, it just hasn't been as good as we would have probably all hoped from the beginning of the year, but that's the reality of where we're at," said Brady. "I love Mike. I love playing with Mike, I love being out there with him. He's a fighter, he's a warrior, he's so tough, he's talented and I've got to make better throws. At the end of the day, I've got to do a better job getting him the ball."
There are a myriad little things the Buccaneers can improve upon, and they believe they're capable of doing so. But in their minds, the playoffs have already begun, so the time to get it right – and to cut loose – is now.