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Buccaneers Have One Last Shot to Secure 3rd Straight NFC South Title and 4th Consecutive Playoff Berth

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — There’s no more room for error in Tampa Bay’s bid for a fourth straight playoff appearance.

Win Sunday’s regular-season finale at last-place Carolina, and the Buccaneers are in as NFC South champions.

Lose and they’re out.

“By any means necessary, we have to show up,” coach Todd Bowles said.

“All we need is a chance to get in,” quarterback Baker Mayfield reiterated, “and we’re still sitting where we need to be.”

While beating the Panthers to earn what would be a franchise-record third consecutive division title may not appear to be a daunting challenge, the Bucs (8-8) have not performed consistently enough this season to draw any conclusions about how they might play this week.

At 2-14, Carolina has the worst record in the NFL and is coming off a 26-0 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

But the Bucs are looking to rebound from a stinker of their own after wasting an opportunity to clinch the division title in a listless 23-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

“Very disappointing. It was like we didn’t know what’s at stake,” linebacker Lavonte David said. “We came out very flat on both sides of the ball.”

Mayfield threw a pair of interceptions and the Bucs also fumbled twice to lose the turnover battle 4-0. Offensively, they were held scoreless into the fourth quarter. Defensively, they struggled to stop the Saints in critical situations while falling behind 20-0.

New Orleans (8-8) climbed into a tie with Tampa Bay for the division lead. If the Bucs lose to the Panthers, then the winner of Sunday’s Saints-Atlanta Falcons finale will win the NFC South and host a playoff game the following weekend.

“Our thing is we can’t beat ourselves. We don’t care if they were 14-2. In the NFL anybody can beat anybody any given week, and division games are always tough,” Bowles said.

“We have to play our game, make less mistakes, and then we’ll worry about the opponent on Sunday,” the coach added. “If we can do that, we will have a chance to win.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Coming off the clunker they played against the Saints, it’s hard to identify anything that’s working. The offense was shut out until the middle of the fourth quarter. The defense contributed to a 17-point halftime deficit by allowing New Orleans to convert six of nine third downs through the first two quarters. Even usually superb punter Jake Camarda struggled with a couple of bad kicks.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The pass rush remains inconsistent. The Bucs had one sack against the Saints, and that came on a play in which Derek Carr scrambled out of bounds. The defense finished with no quarterback hits.

STOCK UP

With teams doing everything they can to try to slow down Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, rookie WR Trey Palmer is developing into a reliable option for Mayfield. He had four receptions for 84 yards and a touchdown against New Orleans, hiking his season totals to 37 catches for 375 yards and three TDs.

STOCK DOWN

On a play that typified how poorly things went against the Saints, a wide-open Palmer caught a deep pass before stumbling — and not only falling, but fumbling — on a 54-yard gain to the New Orleans 21. Saints CB Isaac Yiadom recovered.

INJURIES

Mayfield took a hard hit to the ribs after releasing a pass on a 2-point conversion try with 1:37 remaining against the Saints. Bowles said while the quarterback is sore, he should be fine to play against the Panthers. LB Shaquil Barrett (groin) and CB Carlton Davis (concussion) were inactive against New Orleans. Their status will be determined later in the week.

“They’re trending in the right direction,” Bowles said of Barrett and Davis. “Once I see them Wednesday, I’ll have a better feel.”

KEY NUMBER

3,907. In throwing for 309 yards and two TDs vs. the Saints, Mayfield established new career single-season bests for passing yards (3,907) and touchdown passes (28).

NEXT STEPS

A win at Carolina not only would give the Bucs their third straight division title, but ensure a home playoff game the following week.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl

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