Jan 2, 2022; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) jogs off of the field after the game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Buccaneers focused on securing NFC’s No. 2 seed vs. Panthers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could use a drama-free conclusion to the regular season.

They’ll attempt to achieve that when the Carolina Panthers visit for Sunday’s game at Tampa, Fla.

The Buccaneers (12-4) have more to accomplish before heading into the playoffs.

“You play to win. You play to get that second seed, that’s huge,” Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said. “We’re not resting anybody. We’re playing to win.”

Tampa Bay could be the NFC’s second, third or fourth seed depending on the final-week outcomes. The Buccaneers must defeat Carolina in order to have a chance for the No. 2 seed behind Green Bay.

The Buccaneers are 6-1 at home for the second-best home mark in the NFL, so securing as many chances as possible to play at Raymond James Stadium in January could be critical.

Last week’s antics involving receiver Antonio Brown are bound to be the topic following the team until another game is played.

The Panthers (5-11), losers of six consecutive games, have been eliminated from playoff contention.

Two weeks ago, the Buccaneers clinched the NFC South divisional title when they defeated the Panthers 32-6 in Charlotte, N.C.

“Those players are getting paid, so they’re going to bring it,” Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. said. “This is going to be a big game for them. It’s also a big game for us. Whatever we did last week or the week before, it doesn’t matter.”

While the Buccaneers are looking to add to their recent history, the Panthers are trying to avoid a negative distinction.

Carolina is one loss away from finishing with the worst record in NFL history for a team that started 3-0. The 2001 Chargers and 2012 Cardinals went from 3-0 to 5-11. The Panthers would be 5-12 if they lose the finale.

Either way, Carolina is guaranteed a last-place division spot for the second time in three years. The Panthers, who have had four straight losing seasons, finished with five wins in each of the past two seasons.

“This team is going to fight for each other,” Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn said. “We’re never going to let each other down.”

Coach Matt Rhule of the Panthers is trying to cast a positive light on some aspects of the season. He said he appreciates the effort displayed by players.

“You get to this point of the season, and you have a team that plays that hard, that means you have a good locker room,” Rhule said. “You have good guys. We have really good guys.”

The Panthers are dealing with some players still on the COVID protocol list, although there are indications that center Sam Tecklenburg and defensive lineman Darryl Johnson could be back on the field.

The offensive line has been in shambles. Darnold was sacked seven times last week by the New Orleans Saints.

In four of the most recent string of defeats, the Panthers have failed to score more than 14 points. At least there has been a bit of intrigue involving the quarterback position.

Sam Darnold returned from injury and became the starter again in last week’s loss at New Orleans. Carolina had gone 0-5 in games started by Cam Newton, who now could be in his final game of his second go-around with the Panthers.

“We’re focused on winning this ballgame,” Darnold said, deflecting projections about the future.

Rhule said he expects Newton could be used in special situations, including in the red zone, for the Tampa Bay game.

–Field Level Media

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette (7) after a touchdown, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Buccaneers face Falcons while pushing for NFC’s top seed

The calendar has flipped to December, which means one thing to Leonard Fournette and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“We know what’s at stake,” he said. “Coach BA (Bruce Arians) tells us every day in the meetings in the morning what we’re playing for. Just coming out knowing that each individual plays a part on this team and that will make us whole — to come out and do our job.”

No Tampa Bay player did his job better last week than Fournette. He rushed for 100 yards and scored four touchdowns, including the game-winner in a 38-31 decision over Indianapolis that strengthened the Bucs’ hold on the NFC South.

The Buccaneers aim to improve their seeding for the playoffs Sunday when they visit division rival and playoff hopeful Atlanta.

At 8-3, Tampa Bay is three games clear of the Falcons and New Orleans, so a division title seems inevitable. But the Bucs would still like to catch 9-2 Arizona and 9-3 Green Bay for the top seed so that they could stay at home and get a first-round bye.

“The expectations for us are to go out there and win the division,” said defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. “That’s the first step, especially getting into the playoffs. You do that and take care of business — you know that you’re going to be at home for your first playoff game and go from there.”

Tampa Bay didn’t need home field to win the NFC last year, taking road victories over Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay before it became the first home team to win a Super Bowl by routing Kansas City.

While precisely no one believes Atlanta (5-6) is the team to dethrone the Buccaneers, the Falcons are in the picture going into Week 13, which no one would have forecast in August. The Falcons would actually be in the playoffs if they started now had they not surrendered a late lead earlier this year against Washington, which presently holds the final spot.

As it is, Atlanta put itself in better position last week with a 21-14 win at Jacksonville, getting 108 yards and two touchdowns on the ground from Cordarrelle Patterson plus 190 yards and a score in the air from Matt Ryan.

Few players in the league are having a better all-around season than Patterson. The veteran receiver has become the Falcons’ leading rusher with 411 yards and their second-leading receiver with 41 catches for 500 yards.

The continued absence of receiver Calvin Ridley, who has played only five games this year while dealing with a personal matter, has hampered Ryan. He’s checked in at under 200 yards in four of the last five games with just four touchdowns and seven interceptions.

“It’s part of sports,” Ryan said. “You miss, but you can’t let it linger. You get back to work and have a great week of practice, and that’s what I’m focused on right now.”

Ryan threw for 300 yards in Week 2 at Tampa Bay, but also tossed two fourth-quarter pick-sixes to Mike Edwards that capped the Buccaneers’ 48-25 win. Tom Brady accounted for five touchdowns and 276 yards in the air for Tampa Bay.

–Field Level Media