TAMPA, Fla. (AP)Tom Brady doesn’t sound like he’s looking for rest, and coach Todd Bowles isn’t inclined to sit other key players, either, when the playoff-bound Tampa Bay Buccaneers close the regular season against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Bucs (8-8) clinched their second straight NFC South championship last weekend and have little to play for next Sunday except the prospect of taking a winning record into the postseason.
Bowles said Monday, however, that he doesn’t plan to sit healthy regulars in hopes of avoiding injuries.
”I mean, it’s football. You can’t play 16 games and then worry about the 17th,” Bowles said.
”You can’t play three preseason games and 16 games and practice every day and say you may get hurt in the 17th game,” the coach added. ”You can get hurt the first week, you can get hurt in training camp. If you worry about that, you’re probably going to get hurt anyway.”
As division champs, the Bucs are already assured of hosting a first-round playoff game in two weeks. Sunday’s result at Atlanta will not affect their seeding.
”But we can get better at a lot of things, so right now I’m planning on playing them,” Bowles said. ”We’ll see as the week goes forward, but we can get better at a lot of things that we need to work on, and we don’t need to take our foot off the gas.”
Brady threw for a season-best 432 yards and three touchdowns in the team’s division-clinching 30-24 win over Carolina.
Afterward, the 45-year-old quarterback was asked if it would bother him to not play in the regular-season finale.
”It’s always up to coach. But yeah, that would bother me,” Brady said. ”I haven’t missed a game other than my ACL (injury, in 2008) and then in 2016, I missed the first four games (suspension). Other than that, I’ve played them all.”
Several key players, including tackles Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean, were slowed by injuries for stretches of the team’s drive to the NFC South title.
While Bowles reiterated healthy players should expect to play, particularly offensive linemen whose primary job is protecting Brady, the coach conceded he might be open to pulling some starters at some point against the Falcons.
”It’s possible. Like I said, it’s early in the week. We haven’t made any decisions yet. We haven’t met on it, we haven’t talked about it, everything is on the table,” Bowles said. ”We’ll talk about it and we’ll move forward from there.”
It only took 17 weeks, but the Bucs’ deep passing game finally re-emerged against the Panthers. Brady threw three long TD passes to Mike Evans, who finished with 10 receptions on 12 targets for 207 yards. The TDs were the first for Evans in 12 games, doubling his total for the year to six. Meanwhile, Chris Godwin had nine catches on nine targets for 120 yards.
”They were playing a lot of Cover 1, and Tom was just dropping dimes. Those were some really, really good balls,” Evans said. ”One of the best games I’ve seen Tom play since he has been here. They were falling right in the breadbasket every time. He had an unbelievable game.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
After showing signs of improvement the previous week, the running game stalled again as Leonard Fournette (28 yards, 10 carries) and Rachaad White (22 yards, 11 carries) combined for 50 yards on 21 attempts against Carolina.
LB Anthony Nelson had a strip-sack for the second straight game Sunday and has forced three fumbles over the past four weeks – most in the NFL over that span. He’s tied for second on the team with a career-best 5 1/2 sacks.
The offense continues to struggle on third down. Despite scoring 30 points and finishing with a season-high 478 yards of offense, the Bucs converted just 4 of 13 (26.7%) of third-down opportunities against the Panthers.
Bowles said it’s too early to speculate on the status of Davis (shoulder) and LB Carl Nassib (pectoral) for next Sunday’s game at Atlanta. Both players were inactive against the Panthers.
19 – Brady’s latest division title extends his NFL record to 19 during a 23-year career. He’s led his teams to the playoffs in each of the past 14 seasons.
A chance to sweep the season series against NFC South rival Atlanta and finish the regular season on a three-game winning streak.
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