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

Oct 24, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA;  Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) looks on in the second half against the Chicago Bears at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Bucs WR Mike Evans (back) returns to practice

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans returned to practice Friday after missing two days with a back injury.

Evans experienced back tightness following Monday night’s 30-10 win against the New York Giants.

The Buccaneers (7-3) hope to have him on the field Sunday when they visit the Indianapolis Colts (6-5), particularly since fellow wideout Antonio Brown (ankle) has not practiced all week.

Evans, 28, is tied for the NFL lead with 10 touchdown catches in 10 games this season. The three-time Pro Bowl selection ranks second on the Bucs in receptions (47) and receiving yards (679) behind Chris Godwin.

–Field Level Media

New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (8) throws against the Las Vegas Raiders in the first half at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in East Rutherford.

Nyg Vs Lvr

Daniel Jones, Giants try to snap prime-time skid vs. Bucs

Playing under the lights in prime time hasn’t been a good situation for Daniel Jones.

The New York quarterback will look to earn his first win in eight such career starts when the Giants (3-6) visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) on Monday night.

Part of the 0-7 mark are two setbacks this season — a 30-29 loss to the Washington Football Team on a Thursday in September and a 20-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on a Monday earlier this month.

“I really haven’t thought about it,” Jones said of the dubious streak. “I didn’t realize it until recently, but we’re preparing for this week. Each game is different. Each game is a different opportunity, so we’ll look to prepare for this one.”

Overall, New York has lost nine consecutive night games — five on Mondays, three on Thursdays and one on Sunday — since Eli Manning guided the Giants to a 27-23 victory over the San Francisco Giants on Nov. 12, 2018.

The Giants had a chance for a victory over Tampa Bay last season when the teams played on a Monday night. New York led 14-3 late in the first half before the Buccaneers rallied for a 25-23 victory.

Tampa Bay leads the NFC South by one game, but the mood is a bit uneasy after consecutive losses to the New Orleans Saints and Washington.

The Buccaneers gave up 65 points in the two outings to see their ranking in scoring defense (23.6 points per game) slide to a tie for 17th.

Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who has a team-best 5.5 sacks, said the focus this week has been on fixing what’s wrong.

“Start by looking in the mirror and just get back on track and get back to the mindset that we have to go out there and earn every play,” Barrett said. “We have to grind it out. Nothing is going to be given to us. Nothing is going to be easy, so we have to work for everything that we want.”

The offense continues to be solid as Tampa Bay ranks third in scoring (31.0 points per game). Quarterback Tom Brady leads the NFL with 27 touchdown passes and has thrown for 2,870 yards and seven interceptions.

Receiver Mike Evans is second in the NFL with nine touchdown catches this season and has 70 in his career.

The 28-year-old Evans’ next score will tie him with team legend Mike Alstott (71 from 1996-2006) for the most total touchdowns in franchise history. Alstott, a fullback, rushed for 58 scores and had 13 as a receiver.

“For Mike (Evans) to do it, it shows an unbelievable level of consistency and availability,” Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said of the eighth-year pro. “He doesn’t miss many games. When you put those two together, with seven years of 1,000 yards, it’s availability and consistency at a very high level.”

As for New York, the Giants had a bye last week after beating the Las Vegas Raiders 23-16 on Nov. 7. The team also is hopeful running back Saquon Barkley (ankle) can return after a four-game absence.

Barkley was hurt during a 44-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 10. He has rushed for 195 yards and two touchdowns this season.

Barkley was a limited participant in Thursday’s practice. Giants coach Joe Judge wasn’t ready to say the Giants can count on having Barkley against Tampa Bay, but offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is surely eager to call Barkley’s number.

“He’s just a great football player,” said Garrett, the former head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. “I was on the other side of this for a couple of years against him, and he’s one of those players that can just really impact a game.”

Among the Giants who sat out Thursday was receiver Sterling Shepard (quadriceps).

Receiver Antonio Brown (ankle) sat out for the Buccaneers and could miss his fourth straight game. Tight end Rob Gronkowski (ribs) was a full participant and is on track to return after missing five of the past six games.

Tampa Bay placed cornerback Richard Sherman (calf) on injured reserve earlier this week.

–Field Level Media