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Much more at stake than an NFC South title for Bucs against Panthers

TAMPA — Destiny and disaster are next door neighbors. The Bucs know this all too well, because they have resided in both places this season.

Start 3-1. Lose six of the next seven. Win four in a row. Fail to clinch the NFC South with a lackluster loss to the Saints.

“(It was) really a timely wake-up call for our guys,” offensive coordinator Dave Canales said. “We can’t just show up and expect these things to happen for us. It takes a lot of intentionality. Even with all the holiday season and all of that — whatever that is — we have to maintain our focus.”

That shouldn’t be hard, considering the Bucs can clinch their third straight NFC South championship with a victory Sunday at Carolina in their final regular-season game.

If they lose, you can stick a pin in all that inflatable hype generated by head coach Todd Bowles, Canales and even Baker Mayfield.

“It’s all you can ask for,” Bowles said. “We’re looking forward to it. We understand where we are. We’re happy to be in this spot playing positive football in December, trying to get in the playoffs. We control our own narrative. It’s up to us to win it.”

Seriously, when was the last time so much was riding on the outcome of the final regular-season game for the Bucs?

They’ve had only three such games in club history where if you win, you’re in; lose, you’re out. They won all three, most recently in 1982.

Bowles has been in this situation before, too. In his first season with the Jets in 2015, he only needed a win on the final game of the regular season to reach the postseason. But quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw three interceptions in a 22-17 loss to Buffalo that knocked New York out of contention after winning five in a row.

Consider what could be at stake Sunday.

Bowles’ future as Bucs coach

A victory would give Bowles back-to-back NFC South titles and the Bucs a third straight, which has never occurred in franchise history. It also would be Tampa Bay’s fourth straight playoff appearance.

The Bucs would earn the No. 4 seed in the NFC at 9-8 and host either Philadelphia or Dallas in a wild-card game. It would represent a one-win improvement over 2022 with (Tom Brady) for Bowles.

The Bucs were blown out 31-14 by the Cowboys in the wild-card game last season and some believe Bowles would need a playoff victory to secure his job. But the Glazer family which owns the Bucs would have to take a step back and evaluate what was stacked against Bowles.

Tampa Bay had nearly $80 million in dead salary-cap money and decided to get its financial house in order after spending wildly during three seasons with Brady. It went from the oldest to the youngest roster in the NFL.

Mayfield was joining his fourth team in about 16 months. The Bucs hired a first-time offensive coordinator in Canales, who hadn’t called plays since he was at Carson High School in 2005. Sports Illustrated and other outlets had the Bucs 31st in their NFL power rankings and only picked them to win two or three games.

Firing Bowles would likely mean starting over on offense despite the improvement under Canales.

Some believe just making the playoffs will not be enough. Does Bowles need a victory in the wild-card game, or would a good showing suffice? Of course, all of this would depend on whether the Glazers have another head coach in mind.

The Glazers have gone after some big-name coaches, and they want to win and be relevant. Would that happen if they were able to hire Bill Belichick? Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh? A more likely candidate would be Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Not only did he coach three seasons with the Bucs, he won two national titles as offensive coordinator with Georgia and helped Lamar Jackson become the favorite for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award as the Ravens secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

Both Belichick and Monken have worked with Jason Licht and have a good relationship with the Bucs GM.

Mayfield’s future as quarterback

We’ve reported there’s mutual interest between Mayfield and the Bucs in signing an extension. Mayfield already has set or matched career marks for passing yards (3,907), touchdowns (28) and passer rating (95.9).

He’s starving for continuity and a place he can call home for more than one season. His biggest advocate is Bowles. Who knows what a new head coach would want to do, although Monken coached Mayfield for one season in Cleveland. In the short term, Mayfield can earn a $1 million bonus by winning the NFC South.

Others who could be on the move

WR Mike Evans: At 30, he’s had one of his best seasons as a pro and leads the NFL with 13 TD receptions, one shy of his career high. But Evans gave the Bucs until Sept. 9 to reach an agreement on a contract extension, and the team didn’t even make him an offer.

Could failing to reach the playoffs or the firing of Bowles factor into Evans’ decision to re-sign with the Bucs? Ultimately, it comes down to money. But Evans would love to play another season with Mayfield, and a win Sunday likely secures the quarterback’s future to Tampa.

LB Shaquil Barrett: The veteran is the Bucs’ nominee for the Ed Block Courage Award and deserves it after returning from an Achilles injury and dealing with the tragic drowning of his two-year-old daughter last spring. But Barrett has only 4½ sacks this season. The team converted $15.04 million of his 2024 salary into a club option bonus.

“I’m excited to get out there,” said Barrett, who missed last Sunday’s game with a groin injury. “I missed it last week. I can’t wait. It should be a big, big game for me this week. Not should, it will be.”

Inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David also are among the Bucs’ potential free agents. So is safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who would receive the franchise player tag if a long-term deal can’t be reached.

Change is the only constant in the NFL. So is how abruptly the season ends for all but one team each postseason.

“I know that firsthand from the first time I went to the playoffs,” Mayfield said. “It’s strange how it happens. You’re playing for your job at that point, for the next week, just for another opportunity. ... You have to understand that, ‘Hey, when we get in this huddle it could be our last time together.’ We’ll see. Just make it happen and make it count.”

It will count for a lot more than just a division title.

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