JACKSONVILLE – Jaguars.com senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2023 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.
Up this week:
Greg Auman, FOX Sports' NFC South and Tampa Bay Buccaneers writer, on the Buccaneers' matchup with the Jaguars at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Sunday at 4:05 p.m.
Question: The Buccaneers (7-7) have won three consecutive games. They beat the Green Bay Packers, 34-20, in Green Bay Sunday and now control their destiny in the race for the NFC South title. What is the state of the Buccaneers entering Sunday?
Answer: They were sitting at 4-7. They knew they had winnable games ahead, but they hadn't always won those games. They're now tied with the Saints [for first place in the NFC South], but they have the tiebreaker there. They have the Saints on New Year's Eve in Tampa. If they win that game and either of the other two, they're really in good shape. The New York Times model has them at like 77 percent to make the playoffs, which is wild when you think about them being 4-7. They kind of went into this season knowing they would take a lot of the lumps for all the salary-cap wizardry they did to bring a lot of talent in around [former quarterback] Tom Brady for three years. If they win Sunday, they will match last season's win total. They were a division champ last year, but they went 8-9. A month ago, people were talking about whether [Head Coach Todd] Bowles gets fired and would they draft a quarterback. Now, [quarterback] Baker Mayfield has played well enough where he's got a good case to re-sign and be the guy here at least for a couple of years.
Q: Mayfield has thrown 24 touchdowns with eight interceptions this season, with four touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 passer rating Sunday. Is he the key to the team's turnaround?
A: Their offense as a whole has been better. Their run game was kind of nonexistent in the first two months of the season, then the last four games has been much better. [Running back] Rachaad White has averaged like 93 yards a game [rushing] the last four games with two big touchdown catches as well. Early in the year, they were running kind of on principle, but they really weren't good. But if you look at the last three or four weeks, they're around 12th in the NFL. That has given them a lot more balance. Mayfield throwing the ball 45 times is not a good thing, but his game Sunday was about his best game ever. They definitely rallied around him. It's a different leadership than they had with Brady. It's much more of a kind of a gutsy, tough-it-out style, but they've gotten it done. It's a bad division, so to be 7-7 only says so much. But if they win a division title, it would be three in a row. They never had won even two in a row in their history until last year, so it means something for them.
Q: And you say he could the quarterback moving forward…
A: When Baker came here, he was on his fourth team in a year. I think for him there has to be a priority on stability, continuity and knowing who your coach and your coordinator and your teammates are. He could very well get an offer of more money from another team. I just don't know if he wants to uproot his family. I don't know if he wants to roll the dice again, seeing how well this has worked out for him. If they can do that without breaking the bank, I think it makes a lot of sense for both sides.
Q: Assess their defense this far.
A: Up and down – a lot of sacks, a good amount of turnovers. They give up a ton of yards. They have dealt with injuries, especially on the back end. [Linebacker] Devin White has not been as people had hoped he'd be in a fifth-year option year; he's probably walking [as an unrestricted free agent after the season]. Defensive tackle Vita Vea is obviously huge against the run. They have two rookies up front that have done well; Defensive lineman Calijah Kancey and outside linebacker Yaya Diaby have 10 or 11 sacks between them. Safety Antoine Winfield is probably the best player on the defense. He's having a Pro Bowl, All-Pro season. They tend to give up a lot of yards. They're good. They're one of the best defenses for takeaways but they're definitely vulnerable.
Q: So, when the Bucs have lost, it sounds like their defense has let them down.
A: Definitely. Their offense has been kind of inconsistent. Their losses kind of fall into two categories. They've played elite teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills and weren't really in those games at all. They've let other games against teams like the Houston, Texans, Atlanta Falcons and Indianapolis Colts kind of get away from them. They definitely had close games against middling opponents that they've let get away from them. They could be 9-5 instead of 7-7 without a lot of heavy lifting.
Q: So from your perspective, is this a playoff team? Is this a successful season either way?
A: Absolutely. I think Vegas had them with like an over-under of six and a half wins for the season. I think Peter King [of NBC Sports] picked them to go 3-14. A lot of people saw Brady leaving and saw them have a very quiet [offseason] where they didn't sign anybody from outside for more than $4 million. They've leaned on rookies a lot. Their schedule is a first-place schedule, so that meant Eagles, 'Niners and Bills. It also meant six games in a bad division. I think they think of themselves as a playoff team, and they have treated their last few games like playoff games. They needed to treat these games with zero margin of error if they wanted to get in the playoffs. They've probably earned a little bit of wiggle room, but not a whole lot.