TAMPA, Fla. (AP)The surest path to the playoffs is a division championship, which isn’t a far-fetched goal if you’re part of the less-than-imposing NFC South.
Tampa Bay won with a losing record last season, and the first-place Buccaneers (3-2) haven’t exactly been a juggernaut in building the slender division lead they’ll carry into Sunday’s home matchup against the rival Atlanta Falcons (3-3).
The season, obviously, is still young. Nevertheless, it’s an opportunity to get an early leg up on potential tiebreaker scenarios in a race that could go down to the wire.
“That’s important,” Bucs receiver Mike Evans said. “Last year, we had the opportunity to gain some ground early in the season and we didn’t do it. This would be a great time to take control.”
Tampa Bay, which won the division the past two seasons with Tom Brady leading the way, holds a half-game lead over the Falcons despite sputtering offensively while losing two of its past three games.
The Falcons and young quarterback Desmond Ridder have dropped three of four following a 2-0 start, including a mistake-filled, eight-point loss to Washington last week.
Atlanta has posted losing records in five consecutive seasons since its last playoff appearance in 2017. Coach Arthur Smith said the path to ending the drought goes through Tampa Bay.
“That’s the only way you guarantee yourself the postseason, by winning the division. … Tampa has been the one at the top of the division,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a big game for us, a big game for them. … We understand the significance.”
Baker Mayfield has replaced Brady at quarterback for the Bucs, who are aiming to rebound from a 20-6 loss to Detroit that coach Todd Bowles described as a “clunker.”
Tampa Bay was held to two field goals and didn’t surpass 200 yards of offense until the closing minutes of the game.
“This game is bigger … because it is a division game, obviously. They’re fighting for first, we’re fighting for first, New Orleans is fighting for first,” Bowles said. “It’s early on, but anytime you get a divisional game you want to win it.”
“All of our goals are in front of us. It starts big picture-wise. You have to win your division first to get where you want to go. We’re still in control of our destiny when it comes to that,” the Bucs quarterback said.
“We’re not hitting the panic button. We know we can play better, and that’s the good thing,” Mayfield added. “It’s not we’re looking round like: ‘Oh no, what’s the deal? How do we fix this?’ No, we know what we need to fix, and we have a good group to be able to do that.”
The Bucs have outscored opponents 73-43 in their three victories. They’ve only gotten into the end zone once while being outscored 45-17 in losses to the Eagles and Lions. Players, however, reject the notion that struggling against Philadelphia and Detroit is an indication Tampa Bay doesn’t match up well with stronger teams in the NFC.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s us not measuring up. We did some stupid stuff in both those games,” left tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “Hindsight is always 20-20, but I think we fix some stuff, we are right there with them.”
The Falcons were tied with the New York Giants for last in the league with five sacks through five games. They doubled that total with five sacks in last week’s loss to Washington.
“This team held the ball a little bit longer and gave us a chance to get there,” assistant head coach for defense Jerry Gray said.
The push from defensive tackles Grady Jarrett, who had one sack, and David Onyematta were keys to the pass rush.
“When they’re really playing at a high level, we know three (blockers) have to take two,” Gray said. “That’s a plus for us.”
TIGHT END CENTRAL
Ridder’s two touchdown passes last week were to tight ends Kyle Pitts and Jonnu Smith. Smith has at least four catches in five consecutive games, the fourth-longest streak among NFL tight ends. It was the first scoring catch of the season for Pitts, who has a combined 11 catches for 130 yards the last two weeks.
Smith ranks third on the team with 25 receptions. Pitts has 22 catches.
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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