The Tampa Bay Buccaneers absorbed a deflating 35-7 loss in San Francisco on Sunday and in the process saw their lead in the NFC South shrink to just one game over both the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers. With a Wild Card berth improbable, it is essentially a division title or bust, and there are only four more weeks to sort out that race. For the Buccaneers, that includes a Week 17 game at home against Carolina and a Week 18 season finale in Altanta.
That means, obviously, there is no time to waste, and Head Coach Todd Bowles said after Sunday's game that the team has to come to a conclusion fast on how it is going to handle the next four weeks.
"We have to decide what kind of team we want to be," said Bowles. "We can't be one set of Bucs and another set of Bucs. It has to mean something. We have a one game lead with four games to go. Either we want it or we don't. … So as a team, as a group, we have to buckle down and we have to decide what our fate is in the next few weeks."
What the Buccaneers would definitely like to be is a team that can produce points closer to the level it did over the previous two seasons, when it led the NFL with 30.4 points per game. Given the extensive changes in offensive personnel in 2022, not the least of it the result of injuries to the offensive line, the Bucs are unlikely to rediscover that 30-point magic on a weekly basis, but they certainly believe they can wring more than 17.2 points per game out of their not-insigificant amount of talent.
View the top photos of Tampa Bay's Week 14 matchup vs. the San Francisco 49ers.
On Monday, Bowles was asked if he was confident there were adjustments that can be made to make the Bucs more productive on offense for the stretch run.
"Yeah, I do," he repliaed. "I mean, we missed some plays yesterday on offense. We got some penalties on offense, same thing on defense. We can make enough tweaks to where we feel like we're close enough that we can score some points."
The most glaring missed opportunity, of course, was the beautiful 68-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Mike Evans that was erased by a holding penalty. Brady also felt as if he made a poor throw to Evans on a fourth-and-goal pass from the 49ers' eight-yard line in the second quarter, and a promising deep shots to Julio Jones and Scotty Miller just missed making a connection.
The Buccaneers, of course, still have Brady at the helm, and there have been instances over the past two seasons where the offense has jelled, overcome struggles and been able to catch fire. Brady still possesses the intensity and will to win that have made him the NFL's most decorated champion of all time. Coaches like Bowles, Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich and Quarterbacks Coach Clyde Christensen obviously welcome his input on how to get the offense into gear in time to make this season count.
"Well, it's a collaboration," said Bowles. "It's a collaboration with Clyde, Tom, some of the receivers as well, trying to get the right plays in that he likes, the things that Byron likes and then meshing it together. It's been like that since he's been here."
As Bowles noted on Sunday night, it's too late in the season to affect any sweeping changes to the offensive system. But slight adjustments happen throughout the season as a result of injuries and discovering what works best and who can be relied upon to make big plays. The offense already looks different than it did earlier in the season. Rookie running back Rachaad White is now sharing snaps very evenly with Leonard Fournette, rookie tight end Cade Otton is getting involved in the passing game more extensively and Brady is spreading the ball around to a lot of different pass-catchers. Six different Bucs had at least four catches in San Franciso; four different players had six or more grabs the week before in the win over New Orleans.
"It's a little different," said Bowles. "Rachaad is involved a little bit more, obviously. We've got the running game going a little bit better, not as much as we want it to be. It's a little bit more and it's spread out; we're trying to spread the ball around some. There's been some injuries taking place since then so the line looks a little bit different as well. But for the most point, we've got to score more points, we understand that."
Are the Buccaneers a playoff team in 2022? Will they land consecutive division titles for the first time in franchise history? They have four weeks to decide. Finding some answers to unlock the offense's scoring potential would go a long way toward providing the right answer.