DETROIT — At the snap, 99 seconds remained in Sunday’s NFC division-round game against the Lions. The Bucs had one timeout left and trailed by a touchdown and two-point conversion.
Baker Mayfield had the football in his hands and continued to pump belief into his teammates’ hearts.
“We fully believed we were going to drive down, get a touchdown, get a two-point conversion to extend it to overtime,” receiver Chris Godwin said, even though his team was 85 yards from the end zone. “We had a shot, and honestly that’s all you can ask for. With all the highs and the lows, we were right there. It came down to it.”
However, Mayfield’s pass for tight end Cade Otton was intercepted by linebacker Derrick Barnes, sealing a 31-23 Lions win, and sending Ford Field into a frenzy and Detroit to next Sunday’s conference title game against the 49ers in Santa Clara, California.
Afterward, everywhere you looked you saw proud players from an overachieving Bucs team whose futures are uncertain.
Start with Mayfield, on his fourth team in less than two years and with a first-time play-caller, passing for 349 yards and three touchdowns. Even though he and the Bucs have expressed interest in a long-term extension, he will become a free agent.
“I love this group. I said that all year, and it’s authentic,” Mayfield said. “It would mean a lot to me, to bring back a lot of pieces to get this back together and to get to Year 2 in the system and make huge strides. I would love that. Honestly, who knows how it’s going to play out? We’ll see. But I can’t say enough about this organization and the opportunity it gave me this year. I’m just thankful, so I’m hoping it works out.”
Mike Evans stood with his back to his locker. He had just caught eight passes for 147 yards and a touchdown but doesn’t know if his next reception will be in a Tampa Bay uniform even though it’s the only NFL team he’s known.
“This franchise has been unbelievable to me and my family, and I love this place,” Evans said softly. “So, we’ll see.”
Linebacker Devin White dressed quickly and was filling up a Styrofoam plate with chicken on his way to the team bus. He played sparingly in the game behind K.J. Britt, who had 12 tackles, one for a loss.
Britt gave the pregame speech at midfield, while there wasn’t much to say about White’s one tackle in the game.
White will be a free agent, and judging from his lack of usage will wear another uniform next season.
Linebacker Lavonte David, who led the team with 13 tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss, also will be a free agent. He addressed the team in the locker room afterward but offered no clues about his future.
Even coordinator Dave Canales, who grew as a first-time play-caller and whose offense outgained the Lions 408-391, is a candidate for the Panthers head-coaching job.
Not many gave the Bucs a chance to have a winning record this season, much less capture a third straight NFC South title, upset the defending NFC champion Eagles and go down to the wire with the Lions. They were a score and just over 13 minutes away from playing to go to the Super Bowl.
Asked what his takeaway from the 2023 Bucs would be, head coach Todd Bowles said, “a lot of toughness.”
“It’s great that they bought in with each other, and we brought our own narrative for the most part. We didn’t listen to the outside noise. We refused to be the worst team in football, because that’s not what we were going to be. Still had a chance to get to the championship game.”
It turned out to be one of the most maddeningly entertaining Bucs teams in years. They started 3-1, cratered by losing six of seven games, spiked by winning six out of the next seven and found themselves in another rollercoaster affair against the Lions.
They trailed 10-3 before Mayfield capped a 92-yard drive with a 2-yard TD pass to Otton just before halftime. They were down 17-10 before Mayfield connected with Rachaad White for a 12-yard TD pass late in the third quarter.
Aside from a possible emotional parting with Evans, the uncertainty with Mayfield is just as paramount. Bowles said he’s earned the right to be the Bucs’ quarterback moving forward.
“He most definitely has,” Bowles said. “Obviously, it’s too early to talk about that. Business is business, but Baker had a hell of a year. We love him. The guys love him. We’ll see what his future holds.”
Though Mayfield followed Tom Brady, Bowles said the quarterback stepped into an entirely different situation with a new coordinator and a new system.
“We can’t compare Baker to Tom,” Bowles said. “Tom is Mount Rushmore. Tom is off on his own. We started with a new guy, a new system and new energy. Baker carved his own line. I’m proud of him for that.”
Mayfield hated how the season ended. Belief never left the Bucs sideline this year. It stood there with the wobbly head coach, discarded quarterback, future Hall of Fame receiver and mercurial linebacker.
“It sucks, because I know what type of group we’ve had all year,” Mayfield said. “... We weren’t supposed to be in this game by any measure. But we believed in each other, and we fought for it. Yeah, this one is going to weigh on me for a while.”
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