TAMPA, Fla. – From the first day Todd Bowles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took the field for training camp, few outside the organization gave them much of a chance this season.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield was on his fourth team in 19 months, trying to fill the enormous shoes of the recently retired Tom Brady. The roster lacked familiar names from the Bucs’ 2020 Super Bowl season and instead featured unproven youngsters in some of those key spots. Oddsmakers predicted that Bowles could be among the first NFL head coaches fired this season. The Bucs never had that championship feeling, at least not to outsiders.
So it was no surprise early last week when, despite having defied expectations by winning the NFC South, Las Vegas tabbed Tampa Bay as a home underdog for its NFC wild-card matchup against a weakened Philadelphia Eagles team.
The Buccaneers simply ignored the disrespect and then attacked the Eagles with a vengeance Monday night at Raymond James Stadium.
With an aggressive defensive performance and led by a brave performance from Mayfield, the Buccaneers defeated Philadelphia 32-9 to advance to the divisional round of the playoffs. Tampa Bay will travel to Detroit for a Sunday afternoon game against the Lions, who are riding high after beating the LA Rams for their first playoff win in 32 years.
“The underdog role doesn’t bother us,” linebacker Shaquil Barrett said. “We know our capabilities in the locker room, no matter what is projected or what people think is going to happen in the game. We always arrive thinking that we have a great chance of winning the game. So, people saw us as the underdogs tonight, and we know they’re going to see us as the underdogs when they get to Detroit, but we know we have to keep doing the same thing.”
The Buccaneers finish off the Eagles in the duel for the NFC wild card
It’s often said that teams take on the personalities of their strongest leaders, and the Buccaneers are no different. Players will readily admit they are a mix of Bowles and Mayfield.
Bowles, the second-year head coach, is stoic and unwavering but also intensely competitive. The former defender is calculating but very aggressive. Mayfield, meanwhile, is unapologetically himself. He is bold at times, always proud as a competitor and plays with the toughness of a middle linebacker.
Inspired by their coach and quarterback, the Buccaneers steeled themselves all season against the outside noise, particularly after a four-game losing streak that stretched from October to November and turned into a 1-6 skid.
“We just stayed the course,” Barrett said. “We always knew we were a better team than we were during the losing streak we had. …Now everything is starting to click and that’s why we stay with the program and trust the process and continue doing what we’re supposed to do. “We knew it was going to start working.”
Confidence grew during a four-game winning streak and a 5-1 run by the Bucs to close out the regular season and clinch the division. And the determination remained just as strong this week as the Buccaneers prepared to avenge a 25-11 loss to the Eagles in Week 3.
The Buccaneers wanted to turn things around after giving up 472 total yards, including 201 on the ground, to the Eagles in that opening meeting. Mission accomplished. On Monday night, it was the Buccaneers who racked up 426 total yards and 23 first downs, converting 6 of 14 third down attempts. They held the Eagles to 276 yards (only 42 yards rushing) and 0-for-9 on third down.
Bowles and his defense put on a signature performance while eliminating the threat of the Eagles’ running game. They forced quarterback Jalen Hurts to beat them with a shorthanded wide receiving unit while also nursing a painful, slowly healing dislocated middle finger on his throwing hand.
Making the Eagles one-dimensional allowed Bowles to score one blitzing package after another. He hurt (caught three times, including a safety) and his teammates and coaches never knew how to adjust.
ONCE AGAIN, HOW DO YOU FEEL BUCS FANS? 😱
-NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2024
Linebacker Devin White said the Bucs defense came into the game “with a dominant mentality. We wanted to attack them early and just beat them. I thought it was the preparation. That played a big role and I came here with a winning attitude.”
Offensive players got fuel from those defensive heroes, as well as inspiration from Mayfield. The quarterback was so banged up and bruised from rib and ankle injuries that he brought in his personal physical therapist twice during the week in hopes that additional treatment would give him a chance to play.
It worked. Mayfield threw for 337 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, while also struggling for 16 yards on two carries. Mayfield became just the second Buccaneers quarterback (Brady is the other) to pass for 300 yards or more in a playoff contest.
“It gutted him,” Bowles said. “I mean, if you looked at him during the week, he was limping, he wasn’t practicing and he was getting a little better every day. …He never flinched (Monday). He made play after play after play.”
He baked. 👨🍳
-NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2024
Tight end Cade Otton, who had eight catches for a team-high 89 yards, said the Bucs as a team take on Mayfield’s character.
“It’s just about watching their actions. The way he plays, the way he practices, the way he leads, he’s very genuine and he’s always competing,” Otton said. “He wants to win, but he also wants camaraderie with us. He is just a great person to have as our team leader.”
“He’s a dog,” left tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “He is a super tough guy and an incredible competitor. He has been doing everything he can to be with us. He is just amazing to watch.”
The Buccaneers listed Mayfield as questionable entering the game, but the quarterback said there was never a chance he wouldn’t play Monday night.
“We worked really hard to have a chance to be in the playoffs and we just wanted a chance and our guys came out and played very, very well,” said Mayfield, whose three touchdown passes were for 44, 56 and 23 yards. “Special teams, defense… once again… we’re happy, but we still have more to do.”
The redemption tour continues Sunday in Detroit, where the Bucs will try to avenge a 20-6 Week 6 loss to the Lions. Detroit is an early favorite by 6 1/2 points, but no one in Tampa cares about that. Why would they, given the odds they’ve defied so far?
(Photo: Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
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