Bucs’ Todd Bowles: ‘We don’t need to take our foot off the gas’

The coach says he’s not inclined to rest Tom Brady or the other starters in Sunday’s regular-season finale despite having the fourth seed in the NFC already locked up.
Will quarterback Tom Brady and the rest of the Bucs' starters play in Sunday's season finale in Atlanta? We'll have to see.
Will quarterback Tom Brady and the rest of the Bucs' starters play in Sunday's season finale in Atlanta? We'll have to see. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Jan. 2|Updated Jan. 3

TAMPA ― With the Bucs locked into the No. 4 seed in the NFC for the playoffs and a somewhat meaningless regular-season finale Sunday at Atlanta (1 p.m., Fox), the biggest matchup head coach Todd Bowles has to prepare for is Rest vs. Rust.

Do the Bucs play Tom Brady and their starters in an effort to win their third game in a row while risking a key injury that could torpedo their chances in the postseason?

Or do they sit their 45-year-old quarterback and other stars to give themselves the best chance to make another run at a Super Bowl?

Brady, who has a history of playing at least parts of games after his team has secured its playoff seeding, made his preference clear after Sunday’s 30-24 win over Carolina to retain the NFC South crown.

“I think we’ve got to keep going,” he said. “It’s football season, we’re football players, so it’s what we do. We play football.”

While perhaps a little more nuanced with his answer on Monday, Bowles didn’t believe he was walking a fine line between boldness and recklessness.

He said he believes it is important to try to end the regular season with a three-game winning streak and create a little momentum heading into a wild-card game against the Dallas Cowboys or Philadelphia Eagles.

“We can get better at a lot of things. So right now, we’re planning on playing (the starters),” Bowles said. “We’ll see as the week goes forward, but we can get better at a lot of things we need to work on and we don’t need to take out foot off the gas.”

Brady’s own history would suggest that while he may start Sunday’s game, he may not finish it.

In 2006, Brady attempted 24 passes and played into the fourth quarter of the Patriots’ 40-23 win over the Titans in the final regular-season game.

After New England clinched its playoff spot in 2010, Brady played in a season-ending 38-7 win over Miami, going 10-of-16 passing for 199 yards and two touchdowns before giving way to Brian Hoyer.

“It boosts morale,” Bowles said of a win at Atlanta to end the regular season. “Winning helps, period, whether it’s playoffs or the regular season. You want to win every game you can play.

“Obviously, we’ve had some tough ones we lost, we’ve had some tough ones we won. But winning the last two the way we did, obviously that builds morale more, and you want to go in on a high note.”

If Brady plays, it means the Bucs will have to use their starting offensive line, including tackles Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith. Both have missed recent games with injuries.

Playing them Sunday could expose them to further risk, and the inability to protect Brady is what doomed the Bucs in last season’s division-round loss to the Rams.

But teams are operating with a 53-man roster during the regular season, making it impossible to rest everyone.

“We don’t have many to begin with,” Bowles said. “It’s not like training camp, where you have 80 guys or 90 guys. We’re limited to begin with, but some guys need to work on things.”

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Of course, there is risk. In that final regular-season game of the 2009 season, Patriots receiver Wes Welker suffered a torn ACL and MCL and was lost for the postseason.

“It’s football,” Bowles said. “You can’t play 16 games and then worry about the 17th. You can’t play three preseason games and 16 games and practice every day and say, ‘He might get hurt on the 17th game.’ He can get hurt the first week. He can get hurt in training camp. If you worry about that, you’re probably going to get hurt, anyway.”

That said, Bowles hasn’t ruled out also playing some backups, such as quarterback Blaine Gabbert, on Sunday. Second-year pro Kyle Trask never has been active for an NFL game in two seasons, and the finale at Atlanta could provide that opportunity.

“We haven’t made any decisions yet,” Bowles said. “We haven’t met on it, we haven’t talked about it. Everything is on the table. We’ll talk about it, and we’ll move forward from there.”

Bowles said the team doesn’t like to play injured players, regardless of the week in the season.

“If there’s a guy who’s really hurt, you hold him back,” he said. “If there’s a guy that can play right now, early in the week, they’re going to play. That’s how it goes. ... We’ll see how the week goes, and we’ll try to make some arrangements or corrections if we need to make them, and we’ll go from there.”

But in Brady’s mind, Sunday’s game has value beyond the chance to give the Bucs a winning regular-season record.

“I don’t think anything is meaningless,” he said Monday on his “Let’s Go!” podcast with Jim Gray. “Everything is in preparation for what’s ahead. I think you could look at it and say, ‘OK, it doesn’t matter for standings, but it matters because you’re a professional. It matters because it’s a performance. It matters because it’s your job.

“... I love going out there and playing. I love trying to get better. We’re 8-8. We don’t have all our problems solved.”

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