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All or nothing. That sums up the Bucs-Falcons rematch Sunday

A win ties the Bucs for the NFC South lead. A loss means their playoff hopes are likely dashed and everyone’s job is at risk.
 
Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) talks with head coach Todd Bowles ahead of the Oct. 22 game against the Falcons in Tampa. The NFC South rematch is Sunday.
Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) talks with head coach Todd Bowles ahead of the Oct. 22 game against the Falcons in Tampa. The NFC South rematch is Sunday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 9, 2023

TAMPA — Consider how much the Bucs have riding on the outcome of Sunday’s game at Atlanta:

• A win ties Tampa Bay for the NFC South lead.

• A loss puts the Bucs two games behind the Falcons, which is more like a three-game deficit because they would own the first head-to-head tiebreaker with the series sweep. Thinking you can make up three games with four to play is a fantasy.

Jobs are also on the line.

Todd Bowles won’t be fired Monday regardless of the outcome, but he and his coaching staff may want to update their resumes.

Dave Canales could be one and done as an NFL offensive coordinator, whether or not Mariah Godwin applies for his job.

Credit the Bucs for not totally spitting out the one-game-at-a-time cliche.

Despite their 5-7 record, the Bucs control their own destiny. If they get red hot and win the remaining five games, they would threepeat as NFC South champs.

“No question. Playing meaningful games in December is big,” co-defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers said. “We just talked about how I’ve been on some teams where you’re kind of coming up with something to say: ‘We’ve got to play for pride. Play for the name on your back.’ I’ve heard all of them.

“To be playing meaningful games this time of year, that says something.”

Atlanta players celebrate moments after kicker Younghoe Koo's winning field goal against the Bucs back in October.
Atlanta players celebrate moments after kicker Younghoe Koo's winning field goal against the Bucs back in October. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The Falcons aren’t trying to sugarcoat the magnitude of this game, either. Their remaining games are against the Panthers, Colts, Bears and Saints.

“Like this one is a playoff game,” Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen said. “It’s the mindset this late in the season, and we’ve got to win every single one of them. Again, each game is one unit. No one unit is bigger than any other, but the reason why this game is so big is we have an opportunity to go one up on these guys being a division game.”

A lot has changed since the Falcons beat the Bucs 16-13 on Oct. 22 in a game that shouldn’t have been that close. Atlanta lost two fumbles (at the Tampa Bay 11- and 1-yard line) and quarterback Desmond Ridder was stripped of the ball by Antoine Winfield Jr. that rolled through the end zone for a touchback.

The Bucs are running better behind Rachaad White, who ranks fifth in the NFL with 1,029 total yards (643 yards rushing, 386 receiving). The offensive line has developed, and Canales called rookie guard Cody Mauch their most improved player. Defensively, the Bucs have replaced Joe Tryon-Shoyinka with YaYa Diaby, who has five sacks. Defensive tackle Calijah Kancey is the NFC’s Defensive Rookie of the Month.

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Canales said his playcalling will benefit from having played the Falcons once this season.

“I think it’s really important after we play them the first time to go back through and see what wasn’t called that we liked, first and foremost,” Canales said. “And then the things we thought we liked, how did they counter it? How did they take those things away? I wish I would’ve had this pass in this situation. I wish we would’ve started off with these types of runs early in the game as we learn how they’re hitting the combos. ...

“I really respect the job that Coach (Nielsen) did defending us in that game.”

Bucs running back Rachaad White (1) is challenged by Falcons safety Richie Grant (27).
Bucs running back Rachaad White (1) is challenged by Falcons safety Richie Grant (27). [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

In fact, quarterback Baker Mayfield said it was hard to watch the tape from that loss.

“We’re definitely a lot better on offense ― looking at it detail-wise and just (our) understanding of everybody knowing exactly what we’re trying to get accomplished,” he said. “The first game was a little hard to watch, film-wise, going back through it and seeing the improvements that we’ve had. They presented different issues for us that we had to learn from. Some blitz package issues. I mean, they held us to a pretty low score, so we’ve got to go in and improve, learn off that game plan.”

The NFL is a week-to-week league. There’s about 24 hours to celebrate a victory or mourn a defeat because the next game plan is waiting to be installed, practiced and perfected.

The Bucs failed to build any momentum after a 3-1 start bled into their bye week. That was followed by six losses over their next seven games. They blew leads, like the 39-37 defeat at Houston. There were blowouts, like the 27-14 defeat against the 49ers. They squeaked out a 21-18 win against Carolina, the worst team in the league at 1-11, to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.

Canales doesn’t want players to make more of this game than they should, but that’s much easier said than done.

“The way I was trained under Pete (Carroll) was every game is a championship opportunity and I truly believe that,” Canales said. “I was just as nervous before any of our preseason games as I was last week, knowing how big that game was for us for a lot of different reasons.”

But Bucs players know the weight they carry on their shoulder pads into this game.

They are out of tomorrows if they don’t win Sunday.

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