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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Todd Bowles: Bucs Can't Beat Themselves in Last-Chance Game

The Buccaneers can still clinch a third straight division title in Week 18 at Carolina, but they'll need to start fast and avoid the costly mistakes that doomed them against the Saints


Had the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the New Orleans Saints in Week 17 and clinched the NFC South for a third consecutive time, Head Coach Todd Bowles would have had a decision to make. A year ago, in a similar situation, the Buccaneers rested or pulled from the game early most of its starters in a meaningless game in Atlanta in Week 18. Bowles seemed to be leaning towards playing his starters this time around, should that situation arise.

It all became a moot point when the Saints swamped the Bucs, 23-13, denying the early clinching of the division. Now Tampa Bay has to win in Carolina to get that crown and qualify for the playoffs, so it's all hands on deck in Week 18. The Buccaneers need their starters to play on Sunday, and moreover they need them to perform the way they were performing during the four-game winning streak that came to an end in Week 17.

That is Bowles' primary message to his team as it begins to prepare for the 2-14 Panthers, who own the NFL's worst record. Carolina beat Atlanta three weeks ago, took Green Bay down to the wire two weeks ago and only lost by three points in Tampa in Week 13. The Buccaneers, says Bowles, don't need to worry about what Carolina's win-loss record means; they need to focus on their own preparation and execution.

"Our thing is we can't beat ourselves," said Bowles. "We don't care if they were 14-2. In the NFL anybody can beat anybody any given week, and division games are always tough. We have to play our game, make less mistakes, and then we'll worry about the opponent on Sunday. If we can do that, we will have a chance to win."

After the game on Sunday, Bowles gave credit to the Saints for simply playing a better game than the Buccaneers did. However, he also lamented a level of play by his squad – which included a season-high four turnovers – that wouldn't have been sufficient to beat any team, regardless of its record.

"We definitely stunk it up as coaches," said Bowles. "We stunk it up as players. We didn't play up to our standard. We're trying to win our division and we didn't win one. We have another chance next week and we [need to] come back Tuesday ready to work. By any means necessary, we have to show up Sunday."

In the Week 16 win over Jacksonville that put the Bucs on the verge of a division title, the Buccaneers scored on six of their first drives, the only exception being a one-play kneel-down at the end of the first half. Tampa Bay got up early on the Jaguars and never let them back into the game. The loss to the Saints was much different, as the Bucs were out of sync on offense until the fourth quarter and had trouble getting the necessary third-down stops on defense. The Bucs will be seeking a much faster start in their win-or-go-home game in Charlotte.

"The effort is there, you know," said Bowles. "I thought we started slow. In all phases, we started slow. Defensively, we didn't get off the field. [We] didn't get going, offensively. [We] knew what to do, we were just in a daze the first quarter and a half before we could get anything going, and by then it's too late against a good football team.

"You watch it, you analyze it, you talk about it, you work at it in practice. We know we need to start faster. We know we have one more game to get in, and we have to do everything it takes."

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