TAMPA, Fla. — There’s no surefire fix for what’s ailing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Tom Brady-led offense is struggling to score points, the defense hasn’t been playing up to its usual standards and mistakes on special teams have also contributed to the Bucs (6-8) not being able to take command of the NFC South.
“In football, all you can do is fight. You can fight, you can play smarter, and we have to keep fighting,” coach Todd Bowles said in the wake of a 34-23 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that dropped Tampa Bay two games below .500 — but not out of first place in the division.
“We understand what we’re doing is not good enough by far,” Bowles added. “It’s not even close to good enough, and we have three games left to try to save our season.”
The path to a third straight playoff berth is not complicated.
Hold off Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans to repeat as division champions, and the Bucs not only will be in, but will host a first-round matchup.
At 5-9 and already assured of finishing the regular season with losing records, the Panthers, Falcons and Saints trail Tampa Bay by one game with three to play.
The Bucs’ stretch run begins at Arizona on Christmas night. They close with games against Carolina at home and Atlanta on the road.
“We are not playing the way we want to play, which is unfortunate, but we are still first in the division. We do have to understand that and understand that we still have a shot to get in the playoffs,” safety Keanu Neal said.
“We really just have to look ourselves in the mirror and figure it out,” Neal added. “Figure out who we want to be and figure out our identity.”
While Brady continues to rank among the league leaders in passing, the sputtering offense is having trouble scoring touchdowns. Brady threw for two scores in building a 17-0 second-quarter lead against the Bengals, however he wasn’t able to get the Bucs back in the end zone again until less than a minute remained Sunday. By that time, Cincinnati had scored 34 in a row to build a 17-point advantage of its own.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
After spending much of the season doing a good job of taking care of the football, Brady’s fortune has changed. The seven-time Super Bowl champion has turned the ball over seven times in the past three games, including four interceptions. He was intercepted twice and also lost two fumbles — all in the second half — against the Bengals.
“It’s a team game. We’re not placing blame on one side of the ball or the other,” Bowles said. “We’re in this thing together and we’re going to fight. We just can’t turn the ball over. And when we do, we have to make stops.”
Despite Sunday’s collapse, the offense did some good things in building a 14-point halftime lead against the Bengals, who were outgained 261 yards to 83 in the first two quarters.
“It shows us how good we can be … if you’re consistent,” Bowles said.
A botched fake punt play helped Cincinnati get back into the game early in the third quarter, with the Bengals taking over on downs at the Bucs 16 after punt protector Giovani Bernard appeared to be caught off-guard by a snap he failed to handle on fourth-and-1 from the Tampa Bay 26.
Bowles was asked if Bernard had tried to call the play off before the snap.
“There was no call-off. There was just a mistake,” Bowles said, declining to elaborate. “We talked about it in the meeting, we corrected it, and we moved on from there.”
The Bengals turned the gaffe into a field goal that trimmed Cincinnati’s deficit to 17-6.
All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs has missed the past three games with a high ankle sprain. Bowles said he may be getting closer to returning. Safeties Antoine Winfield Jr (ankle) and Mike Edwards (hamstring) returned to the lineup Sunday, though neither finished the game.
Eight. The Bucs limited the Bengals to 184 net passing yards. It was the eighth time this season they’ve held an opponent under 200 net yards through the air. That’s tied for third in the NFL behind Philadelphia (10) and Denver (nine).
Travel to Arizona to face the Cardinals (4-10) on Sunday.