Carolina Panthers safety Xavier Woods intercepts a pass intended for...

Carolina Panthers safety Xavier Woods intercepts a pass intended for Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Tampa, Fla. Credit: AP/Mark LoMoglio

TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers understand there’s little margin for error in their bid to win a third straight NFC South title.

“From here on out, every game we play is a playoff game,” coach Todd Bowles reiterated Monday, looking ahead to next weekend’s matchup against the division-leading Atlanta Falcons (6-6), who won an earlier meeting between the teams.

“Most of them are division games that we play, so it’s really important to win those division games,” added Bowles, who has described a stretch in which the Bucs (5-7) will play four of their final six games within the NFC South as a “round-robin” tournament.

“We all play each other, you know it’s going to come down to the end,” the coach noted after Sunday’s 21-18 victory over the last-place Carolina Panthers lifted the Bucs into a tie for second place with the New Orleans Saints.

“It’s another division game coming up. We had a tough one at our place (against Atlanta) and we have to go down there and try to return the favor.” Bowles said.

Sunday’s victory was just the second in eight games for Tampa Bay following a surprising 3-1 start to the season.

The surest path to a fourth consecutive postseason berth is the division championship, which would also ensure a home playoff game.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield against the Carolina Panthers...

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Tampa, Fla. Credit: AP/Chris O'Meara

"The theme of this week was if we win, we’re in,” safety Antoine Winfield Jr. said after the victory over Carolina (1-11).

“We just have to make sure we continue to handle business and win our games because we control our own destiny.”

The Bucs, who are 2-1 within the division, will also host the Saints and visit the Panthers down the stretch.

“It’s a one game at a time mentality,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “Our guys came ready to play (against Carolina) and we found a way to win. It doesn’t have to be pretty ... but we found a way to win.”

WHAT’S WORKING

At age 30 and in his 10th season, WR Mike Evans continues to produce at a high level, regardless of who’s calling the plays or throwing the football for the Bucs. In addition to joining Hall of Famer Jerry Rice as the only players in NFL history to put together a stretch of at least 10 consecutive seasons with 1,000-plus yards receiving on Sunday, Evans also became the first player to begin a career with a streak of 10 straight years with at least 60 catches.

“I’m pretty happy that I wasn’t the guy to break that streak to be honest with you, but more happy for Mike. That’s amazing,,” Mayfield said. “He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and nobody can take that away from him.”

WHAT NEEDS HELP

With LBs Lavonte David (groin), Devin White (foot) and SirVocea Dennis (illness) inactive, K.J. Britt and J.J. Russell started at inside linebacker against the Panthers. When Britt (back) left in the first quarter and didn’t return, S Ryan Neal filled in at inside linebacker and earned a game ball.

“Ryan played linebacker all of one day of practice, so that was huge,” Bowles said.

STOCK UP

Rookie LB Yaya Diaby, a third-round draft pick, continues to impress after not getting a lot of playing time early in the season. He had one of Tampa Bay’s four sacks against Carolina, increasing his season total to five. All of his sacks have come since Week 8. NT Vita Vea leads the team with 5½.

STOCK DOWN

WR Chris Godwin’s stock didn’t really fall, however the seventh-year pro failed to have a reception Sunday for the first time since 2018. He still contributed to the victory, though, with a 19-yard touchdown run that put the Bucs up 21-10 early in the fourth quarter.

“I think the best part about it is that it came at a time where we needed a touchdown, trying to put the game away,” Godwin said. “I’m fortunate for that.”

INJURIES

Bowles said Monday that he's hopeful David, who missed the past two games, is getting closer to being ready to return to the lineup.

KEY NUMBER

11. Evans had seven catches for 162 yards, including a 75-yard TD, against Carolina — his 11th career game with at least 150 yards receiving and a touchdown. That ties Torry Holt and Hall of Famer Randy Moss for the fourth most by a player in the first 10 seasons of a career. Rice (19), Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson (13) and Tyreek Hill (13) are the only players above Evans on that list.

NEXT STEPS

The Bucs return to the road this week for the crucial NFC South matchup against the Falcons, then play at Green Bay the following Sunday.

More football news

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months
ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME