Sunday, February 5 2023

TAMPA, Fla. — Asked about not calling any timeouts at the end of regulation to give Tom Brady more time to set up a game-winning field goal against the Browns, Buccaneers coach Todd Bowles said Monday that part of the reason he didn’t was that Brady could have thrown an interception.

“It could have been an interception as well,” Bowles said about throwing the ball in a tie game with 32 seconds left. “We said if we didn’t get yardage on the first play, we wouldn’t call a timeout, we’d probably let the clock run, if he saw something he could throw it. … If we had thrown a pick, the ball would have went the other way and they kick the winning field goal. We felt better going to overtime.”

There’s a risk in passing the ball in any situation, but you can’t have much less of a risk involved than in the scenario Bowles and the Bucs faced Sunday. Brady has just two interceptions in 470 pass attempts this season, the lowest interception rate in the NFL at 0.4 percent. And Cleveland’s defense has just three interceptions all season — only the Saints, with two, have fewer — so the odds of them intercepting a given pass are also less than 1 percent.

The Bucs wound up losing 23-17 in overtime, but Bowles said he didn’t think of his decision-making Sunday as conservative by nature. The Bucs were extremely careful after taking a 17-10 lead midway through the third quarter. 

Kenny Albert and Jonathan Vilma discuss Nick Chubb’s big rushing day in the Browns’ victory over the Buccaneers

Kenny Albert and Jonathan Vilma discuss Nick Chubb’s big rushing day in the Cleveland Browns 23-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Facing a third-and-2 at the Cleveland 37 early in the fourth quarter, Bowles opted not to go for it or even attempt a 55-yard field goal (at the limits of kicker Ryan Succop’s range) to get a two-score lead, instead opting to take a 5-yard delay of game penalty and punt from the 42. The kick went into the end zone for a touchback, and two plays later, the Browns were back at their 40-yard line, where they’d have been if the Bucs went for it and failed.

You won’t confuse this year’s Bucs offense with the ones that ranked among the league’s best in the last two seasons, and Sunday’s overtime loss to the Browns was more of the same, managing only 17 points in a lackluster showing. In 2020 and 2021, the Bucs tied for the league lead with 14 games scoring at least 23 points. But this year, they’re tied for the fewest such games in the NFL, with just one in 11 tries, now matching the league low at the other extreme.

Bowles said he has confidence that the offense can turn things around in the final six games of the season. Thanks to the Falcons and Saints losing, the Bucs still lead the NFC South even with a 5-6 record, and they control their destiny for the division title.

“We’ve done it before,” Bowles said of expecting improved play on offense. “We have to get on the same page and stop making mistakes. We have to coach it better and play it better. There’s no secret formula to getting this turned around the right way. We have to make plays, we have to call it right, we have to execute it the right way, we have to stop committing penalties. Obviously, it’s a broken record at this point, but as coaches and players, that’s what you go back to. You go back to your fundamentals and you play ball.”

The Bucs got good news Monday, in that All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs, injured in overtime, is only dealing with a high ankle sprain and could be back in the next four weeks. Three defensive backs — safeties Antoine Winfield and Mike Edwards and corner Sean Murphy-Bunting — are dealing with injuries and will be day-to-day this week ahead of the home game vs. New Orleans next Monday.

Falcons’ finish almost as frustrating

It’s hard to imagine a finish more frustrating and disappointing than the Bucs losing the lead in the final minute and succumbing to the Browns in overtime, but the Falcons can make a good case for enduring something worse.

Atlanta, down 19-13 to Washington in a tight game wire-to-wire, drove from its 16-yard line all the way to the Commanders‘ 2 in the final five minutes, only to see a go-ahead drive end on a deflected pass. After Marcus Mariota lost 2 yards on first-and-goal, his pass was deflected and intercepted in the end zone by a diving Kyle Fuller with 0:58 remaining.

The Falcons got a three-and-out from Washington, using three timeouts to set up a punt with 0:44 left, but outside linebacker Ade Ogundeji was flagged for running into the punter, giving the Commanders a first down and taking away a shot at another game-winning drive.

Taylor Heinicke leads the Commanders to the win over the Falcons

Taylor Heinicke leads the Washington Commanders to the win over the Atlanta Falcons 19-13. Heinicke threw for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Brian Robinson added 105 rushing yards for the Commanders.

Atlanta had managed to go 59 minutes without a turnover and with only one penalty, yet had one of each in the final minute to scuttle any chance of a comeback victory.

Saints come up empty, twice

Almost as frustrating was the Saints getting shut out in a game in which their defense held the 49ers to 13 points. New Orleans had two trips inside the San Francisco 5-yard line and came up empty in both opportunities.

The Saints didn’t get closer than the 49ers’ 30-yard line in the first half and didn’t have a snap in the red zone until the fourth quarter, but had two great opportunities to make it a one-score game in the final period.

Playing in the late afternoon window out west, the Saints knew the Bucs and Falcons had lost, giving them a chance to pull closer to the top of the division, but they still couldn’t take advantage of that either.

“The crazy thing with where we’re at is there’s still stuff in front of us, and we still have something to play for,” quarterback Andy Dalton said after the game. “The game today, it’s frustrating, because there’s missed opportunities, especially with how the division shook out today. The good thing is we are sticking together and we know what’s out in front of us.”

New Orleans drove from its 16 to the 49ers’ 6-yard line, but Dalton’s pass to Alvin Kamara was fumbled at the 1-yard line and recovered by the 49ers with 11:05 remaining. The Saints defense forced a three-and-out and the offense got a short field, starting at the San Francisco 39.

The Saints had a first-and-goal at the 4, but Dalton threw incomplete to three different targets, and on fourth-and-goal, he was sacked by Nick Bosa to end another scoring opportunity with 6:18 left. The 49ers were able to run out the clock, grinding out 11 plays as the Saints defense couldn’t get off the field.

“Certainly we had our opportunities down there in the red zone, and we weren’t able to capitalize,” Saints coach Dennis Allen told reporters after the game. “We had a lot of chances. We had the ball in our hands a couple of times in the end zone and couldn’t come up with the play … I feel like there were some plays out there that we could have made that could have been the difference in the game.”

Another drive in the third quarter saw the 49ers going for it on fourth-and-5 at the 49ers’ 25, but a false start by Ryan Ramczyk set up a fourth-and-10, and Wil Lutz missed on a 48-yard field goal to keep them off the scoreboard.

The Saints now turn their focus to a Monday night game in Tampa, facing a Bucs defense that held them to three points until the final four minutes in a 20-10 win in Week 2, a close game blown open by four Saints turnovers in the fourth quarter.

Panthers defense, run game step up in win over Broncos

Much of the attention going in was the switch to Sam Darnold at quarterback, but Carolina’s defense and run game were the story as the Panthers picked up their fourth win of the season, 23-10 over the Broncos.

Carolina ran the ball 46 times for 185 yards, with D’Onta Foreman leading the way with 113 on 24 carries, and despite going 2-for-12 on third downs, they finished with a time of possession of over 37 minutes, keeping Denver’s offense and Russell Wilson off the field.

The Panthers’ first three scoring drives in building a 17-3 lead were all at least 10 plays and five minutes long, and the defense stepped up, especially in third-and-short situations, where Denver missed on two third-and-2 plays and two more third downs needing 5 yards or less.

Playing for the first time this season, Darnold wasn’t spectacular but avoided mistakes, throwing for one touchdown and rushing for another. He threw for 164 yards on 19 pass attempts, good enough for a 103.8 passer rating.

Sam Darnold speaks on his return in the Panthers’ win

Sam Darnold speaks with Jennifer Hale about the Carolina Panthers’ victory over the Denver Broncos.

The win sets Carolina back in terms of the NFL draft, where they had the No. 2 overall pick before Sunday’s game but now would be picking sixth, but for the current team, it’s an important win that takes them out of the NFC South cellar, with the tiebreak advantage over the Saints, who are also 4-8. It’s a strange thing to go from picking No. 2 to being two losses out of first place with six weeks remaining, but that’s where the Panthers are. 

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Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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