TAMPA, Fla. — From the very first day that Todd Bowles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took the field for training camp, few outside the organization gave them much of a chance this season.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield was on his fourth team in 19 months, trying to fill the recently retired Tom Brady’s massive shoes. The roster lacked household names from the Bucs’ 2020 Super Bowl season and instead featured unproven youngsters in some of those key spots. Oddsmakers predicted Bowles could be among the first NFL head coaches fired this season. The Bucs just never had that championship feel, at least not to outsiders.
So, it came as no surprise early last week when, despite having defied expectations by winning the NFC South, Tampa Bay was pegged by Las Vegas as a home underdog for its NFC wild-card matchup with a sagging Philadelphia Eagles team.
The Buccaneers simply shrugged off the lack of respect, then attacked the Eagles with a vengeance Monday night at Raymond James Stadium.
Riding an aggressive defensive performance and paced by a gutsy performance from Mayfield, the Buccaneers thumped Philadelphia 32-9 to advance to the divisional round of the playoffs. Tampa Bay will travel to Detroit for a Sunday afternoon game against the Lions, who are riding high after beating the L.A. Rams for their first playoff victory in 32 years.
“The underdog role doesn’t bother us,” linebacker Shaquil Barrett said. “We know our capabilities in the locker room, no matter what is projected or what people would think is going to happen in the game. We always come in thinking we’ve got a great chance of winning the game. So, people saw us as the underdog tonight, and we know they’ll see us as the underdog going into Detroit, but we know we’ve got to keep doing the same stuff.”
Buccaneers finish off reeling Eagles in NFC wild-card matchup
It’s often said that teams take on the personality of their strongest leaders, and the Buccaneers are no different. Players will readily admit they are a blend of Bowles and Mayfield.
Bowles, the second-year head coach, is stoic and unflinching but also intensely competitive. The former defensive back is calculated yet highly aggressive. Mayfield, meanwhile, is so unapologetically himself. He’s brash at times, always fiery as a competitor and plays with the toughness of a middle linebacker.
Drawing inspiration from their coach and quarterback, the Buccaneers steeled themselves all season against the outside noise, particularly doing a four-game losing streak that stretched from October to November, and morphed into a 1-6 skid.
“We just stayed the course,” Barrett said. “We always knew we were a better team than we were on the losing streak that we had. … Now, everything is starting to click and that’s why we stay with the program and trust the process and just keep doing what you’re supposed to do. We knew it was going to start working.”
The confidence grew during a four-game win streak and 5-1 run by the Bucs to close out the regular season while clinching the division. And the resolve remained just as strong this week as the Buccaneers prepared to avenge a 25-11 loss to the Eagles in Week 3.
The Buccaneers wanted to turn the tables after giving up 472 total yards, including 201 on the ground, to the Eagles in that initial meeting. Mission accomplished. Monday night, it was the Buccaneers who amassed 426 total yards and 23 first downs, converting 6 of 14 third-down attempts. They held the Eagles to 276 yards (only 42 yards rushing) and 0-for-9 on third down.
Bowles and his defense delivered a signature performance while eliminating the threat of the Eagles’ rushing attack. They forced quarterback Jalen Hurts to beat them with a short-staffed wide receiving unit while also nursing a painful and slowly healing dislocated middle finger on his throwing hand.
Turning the Eagles one-dimensional enabled Bowles to dial up one blitz-heavy package after another. Hurts (sacked three times, including a safety) and his teammates and coaches never figured out how to adjust.
ONCE AGAIN, HOW Y’ALL FEELING BUCS FANS?! 😱
— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2024
Linebacker Devin White said the Bucs defense entered the game “with a dominant mindset. We wanted to jump on them early and just beat them. I think it was the preparation. That played a big part and coming in here with a winning attitude.”
Offensive players drew fuel from those defensive heroics, as well as inspiration from Mayfield. The quarterback was so battered and bruised from rib and ankle injuries, he brought in his personal physiotherapist twice during the week in hopes that the extra treatment would give him a shot at playing.
It worked. Mayfield passed for 337 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions while also scrambling for 16 yards on two carries. Mayfield became only the second Buccaneers quarterback — Brady is the other — to pass for 300 yards or more in a playoff contest.
“He gutted it out,” Bowles said. “I mean, if you looked at him during the week, he was limping around, he wouldn’t practice and he was getting a little better each day. … He never flinched (Monday). He made play after play after play.”
He Baked. 👨🍳
— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2024
Tight end Cade Otton, who had a team-high eight catches for 89 yards, said the Bucs as a team take on Mayfield’s character.
“It’s just watching his actions. The way he plays, the way he practices, the way he leads, it’s very genuine and he is always just competing,” Otton said “He’s wanting to win, but he also wants camaraderie with us. It’s just a great person to have as the leader of our team.”
“He’s a dog,” left tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “He’s a super tough guy and incredible competitor. He’s been doing everything he can to be out there with us. It’s just awesome to see.”
The Buccaneers listed Mayfield as questionable entering the game, but the quarterback said there was never a chance in his own mind that he wouldn’t play Monday night.
“We worked extremely hard to get a chance to be in the playoffs and we just wanted an opportunity and our guys came out and played really, really well,” said Mayfield, whose three touchdown passes went for 44, 56 and 23 yards. “Special teams, defense — once again … we’re happy, but still got more to go.”
The redemption tour continues Sunday in Detroit, where the Bucs will attempt to avenge a 20-6 Week 6 loss to the Lions. Detroit is an early 6 1/2-point favorite, but no one in Tampa cares about that. Why would they, given the odds they’ve defied thus far?
(Photo: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)
“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, is on sale now. Order it here.