Other than the championship title, nothing is at stake for the Buccaneers. A playoff game. heritage.

TAMPA — One more win and perceptions change.

One more win and the record drops. One more win and the story of 2022 will be rewritten.

So, do you think the Bucs have it?

Because Sunday’s NFC South matchup with the Panthers will be Tampa Bay’s most memorable regular-season game in years.

Defeat Carolina, the Bucks into the playoffs. Losing to Carolina, Tampa Bay would end with one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history.

But this is only the beginning of the dominoes. Consider the potential impact of:

• Does a division title and playoff appearances guarantee that Todd Bowles will return as head coach in 2023 after an inconsistent and uninspired first season? The Glazers once fired Tony Dungey after making their third straight playoff run, so there are no guarantees, but you have to think Bowers has a better chance at a January playoff game at Raymond James Stadium much.

• Will strong grades change Tom Brady’s calculations in 2023? It’s hard for me to believe he’ll don a Bucs uniform next season, but even that slim chance could hinge on a record 20th playoff appearance. If the Bucs lose to Carolina and are watching the playoffs on TV, you can immediately start looking for Brady retirement and/or free agency rumors on Google Alerts.

• Has the allure of the playoffs convinced Rob Gronkowksi that he’s really bored? Can you imagine how his future legend would be shaped if he stepped off the couch and helped the Buccaneers beat the Cowboys in January?

• Does the home playoffs mean all is forgiven? The Buccaneers started the season as one of the NFC favorites to win the Super Bowl, so it’s hard to erase the disillusionment of a 7-8 record in late December, but back-to-back division title victories shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.The franchise has been around for nearly half a century, and no way Consecutive division titles.

The Buccaneers' offensive line took another hit Sunday when first-half tackle Josh Wells was sacked.
The Buccaneers’ offensive line took another hit Sunday when first-half tackle Josh Wells was sacked. [ DARRYL WEBB | AP ]

So yeah, it’s not your typical bet between one team limping in at 7-8 and the other uncoordinated hot game at 6-9.

The question is, after four months of lackluster offense, do you believe the Buccaneers can win a game they absolutely, definitely, have no doubt needed to win?

Because, I have to say, this offense (minus Gronkowski) isn’t going to suddenly rise from fear. The combination of a weakened offensive line and an immobile quarterback meant the Buccaneers were limited to using the same short passing lanes that every defensive coordinator saw over and over again.

In his first two seasons in a Tampa Bay uniform, no one in the NFL has completed more 20-plus yards than Brady. This year, however, even though he leads the league in pass attempts, he ranks 12th in that category.

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The bottom line is that the Bucs are 1-4 against teams with a current winning record. You’ll need to go back to the season opener against Dallas to find Tampa Bay’s win against a strong opponent.

And, believe it or not, the Panthers could be a good opponent.

They fired their coaches, they dumped their quarterbacks, they traded their best players in the middle of the season, and somehow, they got better. After losing by an average of 24-17 in the first six weeks of the season, Carolina is 23-21 in its past nine games.

Of course, that includes their 21-3 win over the Buccaneers in October.

So what’s the fate of Tampa Bay?

Quarterback Tom Brady (12) huddled on his team during the second half of Sunday's game in Arizona.
Quarterback Tom Brady (12) huddled on his team during the second half of Sunday’s game in Arizona. [ RICK SCUTERI | AP ]

Will the 2022 Bucs be the team that ends Brady’s 21-year streak with a win, or will it be the team that overcomes injuries and retirement to win the division?

Because there is some persevering prestige. Every Tampa Bay win since October has been a chore. Most are in the last few minutes.

So far, it’s clear that the Buccaneers aren’t strong enough to crush their opponents. If they finish the NFC South, it will be because they’ve nailed the cliffhanger for months.

Now, one game could define their season. A game with both history and future.

So, I ask again, do you think the Buccaneers are capable of that?

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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