Bucs, cardinals meet in week 16 for the fight against underachievers
When the The 2022 NFL schedule has been released in May, a Week 16 meeting between the Bucs and Cardinals – Christmas night no less – stood out as a marquee.
As the two teams prepare for Sunday night’s game at State Farm Stadium, it’s less of a big game and more of a battle between two underperforming teams.
The Bucs are 6-8 and have lost back-to-back games since their thrilling come-from-behind victory over the Saints on Monday Night Football in Week 13. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are 4 -10 and are now the No. 1.3 quarterback after Kyler Murray tore his ACL two weeks ago and backup Colt McCoy suffered a concussion last week. With three games left, they must battle with the 4-10 Rams for third place in the NFC West (or better draft position, if you want to look at it that way).
Instead of Tom Brady against Kyler Murray, it’s Brady against Trace McSorley. And rather than a potential playoff preview between two of the NFC contenders, it’s a contest between a team clinging to playoff hopes by a thread and one that has nothing left to play for .
How did we get here? For the Bucs, it was a dramatic decline from an NFC favorite as Brady announced his return from retirement. Their offense was one of the least productive in the NFL, leaving their defense to carry more weight all season. And despite a 2-0 start to the season, Tampa Bay has never looked like a real contender. Right now the team is in “somehow managed to win this terrible NFC South and see what happens in the playoffs” mode instead of “we’re a real Super Bowl contender “. And that’s a shame.
The Arizona season has somehow been even more of a nightmare than Tampa Bay’s. After starting 2-2, the Cardinals have since gone 2-8. Which almost puts things in perspective for the Bucs, who have gone 4-6 since their own 2-2 start. It’s a mix of poor defense and up and down attack – and now injuries – that has head coach Kliff Kingsbury firmly in the seat. This wasn’t necessarily a Cardinals team expected to compete for a Super Bowl in 2022, but they will undoubtedly fall far short of their expected profit total of 8.5.
Unlike Cardinals, Bucs still have something to play for
As disappointing and demoralizing as Sunday’s loss to the Bengals was, the Bucs inexplicably have everything to play for in the final three games of their regular season. They still have a one-game lead over everyone else in the NFC South, plus they have a 3-1 record in the division that works in their favor. Crazy as it is, the division is theirs to lose, even at 6-8.
“We decide our own destiny, right?” tight end said Cameron Brate Sunday night. “It just comes down to us executing and we just need to find a way to get back on track.”
The Bucs face a downtrodden Cardinals team on Sunday night and they are aware that Arizona has little to lose as the season comes to a close.
“We know they’re going to be extra rough,” Bucs linebacker Devin White said Wednesday. “They have nothing to lose and we have everything to gain, so of course it would be good for them to take that from us. But if you come in as a good ball club, you just have to go in and start winning at their house.
Everything is still on the table for Tampa Bay
After Sunday’s primetime game, the Bucs will face two of the teams they try to hold off for the division crown. They see Sam Darnold and the Panthers at home in Week 17 before closing out the season with a road trip to rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder and the Falcons. But as favorable as the remaining schedule is for Tampa Bay, this is not a team that can afford to take anyone lightly.
“We still have three games to go,” left guard Nick Leverett said. “We can’t really pay attention to first place and all that. We have to play as a first team. We need to outperform, pay attention to the small details and collectively all be on the same wavelength. We’re not really focused on ‘We come first’. We are focusing on becoming a better team and hopefully making the playoffs.”
If the Bucs can hold on to their second consecutive NFC South title, it will at least give them something to hang their hats on from what was otherwise a woefully underwhelming season. It’s not much, of course, given the combined 21-35 record of the four teams, but another division title and a home game is better than the alternative. Stumbling the stretch and missing the playoffs would ultimately be a complete waste if Brady came back as their quarterback for a third season. And there’s no telling at this point whether or not they’ll get a fourth season with the all-time best quarterback under center.
“(Division championships) hard to come by,” head coach Todd Bowles said Wednesday. “Every division you win, whether you are 17-0 or 4-13, you win the division and you have a division banner. Then you try your next goal to reach the Super Bowl. Our first goal is to win the division, so that’s what we’re trying to do. If we can win the division, then we will try to focus on getting to playoffs and winning the Super Bowl.”
So yes, there’s plenty to play for on Christmas night. As the playoff picture stands now, the Bucs would host the 10-4 Dallas Cowboys on Wild Card Weekend. And as anyone who’s paid attention to the NFL knows, there’s at least a chance once you’re in the dance. Tampa Bay knows it should be better down the road to give itself a shot in January.
“In football you can only fight,” Bowles said after Sunday’s loss. “You can fight, you can play smarter, you can coach smarter and we have to keep fighting. We understand that what we are doing is nowhere near good enough. It’s not even good enough and we have three more games to try and save the season.”
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