TAMPA — A year ago at this time, with Tom Brady at the helm, the Bucs had an identical 4-5 record and had struggled mightily on offense when they boarded a plane to Germany.
They won that game over the Seahawks, but their fortune wasn’t .500.
The Bucs finished the regular season with an 8-9 mark but still won the NFC South and the right to host the Cowboys in a wild-card game.
Considering the offseason overhaul, as well as recent collapses to Atlanta and at Houston, the Bucs find themselves in remarkable shape to three-peat as division champions.
Both the Saints and Falcons lost Sunday. New Orleans (5-5) still leads the division heading into its bye week. Atlanta’s defeat to Arizona dropped it into third place, ½-game behind Tampa Bay at 4-6.
“It’s the same, but it’s different,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said Monday. “We feel different, because we’re a different team. Obviously, the record and everything is the same, but we feel like we’ll be in it right until the very end. We just have to take care of our business and get on a streak.
“... November and December football is very important. This is the third quarter for us. If we can do well in the third quarter and set up the fourth quarter, we feel like we can bring it home.”
Unfortunately, bringing it home means starting with their longest trip on the road. The Bucs travel to face the 49ers Sunday in Santa Clara, California. Levi’s Stadium is the site of Tampa Bay’s biggest regular-season whipping a year ago, as San Francisco spoiled Brady’s homecoming with a 35-7 rout.
“You can see how they played you last time, and obviously it will be different again this time,” Bowles said. “But very-well coached team, they don’t commit a lot of penalties. They play very composed football. So you’ve got to withstand the first, second and third wave of those guys, because they’re going to keep coming.
“Understanding what we have to do from our standpoint will be more important than what they have to do. We’ve got to go out there and understand the mistakes you made last year and correct things and just play hard, tough football.”
Instead of Brady, the Bucs have Baker Mayfield under center. He’s the division’s highest-rated passer (93.6) with 2,143 yards, an NFC South-best 14 touchdown passes and only five interceptions.
“In the last few weeks, even in the losses, we’ve been fighting,” Mayfield said following Sunday’s 20-6 win over the Titans. “So, it’s just a matter of things to kind of fall our way and to just continue on this journey. Don’t let your head go down. Continue fighting, and the good things will happen.
“So, it’s a one-game-at-a-time mentality for us from here on out. Control our own destiny and see where it takes us. So, we have a group that’s really, really focused. We know what we need to do. Now it’s just about continuing to correct it and show up on Sundays.”
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Glancing ahead, it helps the Bucs that they own the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Saints, having beaten them in Week 2. In addition to New Orleans, Tampa Bay has two remaining games with Carolina (1-8) and one at Atlanta.
Even if the Bucs lose to the 49ers, if they go 4-0 in their remaining NFC South games (they should be favored in at least three of them), they would need only to win two of their three remaining non-division games: at the Colts (Nov. 26), at Green Bay (Dec. 17) or against the Jaguars at Raymond James Stadium on Christmas Eve to finish 10-7. That could be enough to win the division and host a home playoff game.
Of the teams in the NFC South, the Bucs probably have the toughest remaining schedule against non-division opponents.
The Falcons’ remaining non-division games are at the Jets, home against the Colts and at the Bears. The Saints also have an easier path outside the NFC South: vs. the Lions and Giants before traveling to Los Angeles to play the Rams.
New Orleans quarterback Derek Carr had to leave Sunday’s 27-19 loss to Minnesota with a shoulder injury and a concussion, making his status going forward uncertain.
There’s still a long way to go, but it looks as if the Bucs once again will be playing meaningful games in November and December. What will be the key?
“It’s just keepng everybody together,” Bowles said. “The positivity, the focus, the understanding, the communication, talking to guys when they’re down and picking them, and everybody being in the same boat. They do a real good job with that.
“(Sunday’s win) was big, because we lost four in a row. A lot of people can lose faith, and these guys never flinched in the locker room. The effort was there. They understood the mistakes they made, and they tried to correct them (Monday), so that was big for us.”
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