TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Now that they’re back on top of the NFC South, the challenge for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is to stay there.
The two-time defending division champions currently hold tiebreaker advantages over both rivals. Still, the margin for error down the stretch figures to be minimal with Tampa Bay facing playoff contenders Green Bay and Jacksonville before closing with division matchups against the Saints and Carolina Panthers.
The Bucs have won two straight following a stretch in which they lost six of seven.
Coach Todd Bowles said Monday the difference has been players simply beginning to make plays they weren’t earlier in the season.
“The plays we won yesterday with — and the week before (against) Carolina — we weren’t winning in late October and early November,” Bowles said.
“The maturity factor has kicked in, and mental toughness factor has kicked in, and then believing in each other and playing for each other has kicked in,” the coach added. “That’s kind of what you want to see in December football. I think that plays a lot in it.”
Baker Mayfield led a game-winning 75-yard scoring drive in the closing minutes, capping it with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Cade Otton with 31 seconds remaining. The quarterback said he didn’t sense any panic in the huddle when the Bucs fell behind in the fourth quarter.
“I just see nobody flinching. Nobody’s wide-eyed, and everyone seems really calm, just ready for the next play. That’s what you want. Guys that are cool, calm and collected and ready to go to work,” Mayfield said.
“We need to carry this mentality over to next week,” the quarterback added. “This game won’t matter unless we take care of business next week.”
While Mayfield only threw for 144 yards, the sixth-year pro tossed a pair of TDs passes and ran for a third against Atlanta. His biggest completion was a 32-yarder to Chris Godwin on third-and-10 to keep the winning drive alive.
“He’s been doing it all year. ... He’s a guy we rally around," Bowles said. "He’s a guy that puts us in a position to win.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The lack of a consistent running game has been a problem most of the past two seasons — until recently. The Bucs ran for a season-best 148 yards against the Falcons, the team’s third straight outing with 125 or more on the ground.
RB Rachaad White rushed for a season-high 102 yards and finished with a career-best 135 yards from scrimmage on Sunday He also scored on a 31-yard reception.
A week after going without a reception for the first since since 2018, Godwin was targeted 11 times and finished with five catches for 53 yards. The bounce-back performance was not surprising. In 13 career games against Atlanta, Godwin has 72 receptions for 998 yards and nine TDs.
Three defensive starters — LB Devin White (foot), CB Jamel Dean (ankle/foot) and NT Vita Vea (toe) — did not play against the Falcons. S Ryan Neal (hip/back) left Sunday in the second quarter. Bowles said it’s too soon to speculate on their status for this week.
1,164 — White's total yards from scrimmage, which ranks third among NFL running backs. San Francisco’s Christian McCaffrey (1,461) and Jacksonville’s Travis Etienne (1,189) are the only running backs with more.
Travel to Green Bay, finishing a stretch of playing four of five games on the road. The Bucs will play two of their final three at home against Jacksonville (Dec. 24) and New Orleans (Dec. 31).
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Fred Goodall, The Associated Press