Following a crushing loss to New Orleans in Week 17, Tampa Bay enters its Week 18 season finale against Carolina with the stakes as high as they get. With the loss, the Buccaneers, Saints, and Falcons all remain in contention for winning the NFC South division title and securing the No. 4 seed in the NFC Playoff picture.
For Tampa Bay, the path to their third straight NFC South division title is simple: win on Sunday and you're in. Meanwhile, New Orleans would need to beat Atlanta plus have Carolina upset Tampa Bay to secure the division crown. The same goes for the Falcons, who need a win over the Saints and a Buccaneers' loss to the Panthers to host a playoff game for the first time since 2016.
All of this goes to say that Tampa Bay needs to take care of business against Carolina on Sunday -- or else. While the Panthers are the worst team in football, they played the Buccaneers extremely close in Week 12.
"I know their record doesn't show [it], but they're really scrappy, so we've got to come with it next week," Mike Evans said.
Tampa Bay will enter Sunday's penultimate matchup with several key players dealing with notable injuries. Shaquil Barrett and Carlton Davis both missed last week's game against the Saints because of a groin injury and concussion, respectively. Luckily, head coach Todd Bowles said Barrett and Davis III were "trending in the right direction" and could be in play this week.
Unlike those two, Baker Mayfield doesn't seem to be trending in the right direction.
Against New Orleans, Mayfield took a hard cheap shot from Tyrann Mathieu on a two-point conversion attempt, which later resulted in a roughing the passer penalty on Mathieu.
“[I’m] pretty sore, but it’ll be good. It’s just one of those things that, you know, it’s tender," Mayfield told reporters at Wednesday's practice. "I’ve dealt with rib injuries before, but rest and just as the week goes on it always helps.”
Over his six-year career, Mayfield has dealt with and played through some gnarly injuries, including a torn labrum in his final three games in Cleveland. With the chance to lead Tampa Bay to a 9-8 record, the NFC South division title, and the No. 4 seed, Mayfield is willing to do whatever it takes to do so on Sunday.
“I’ll do everything I can to be out there, that’s for sure. Division on the line, playoff hopes on the line, going back to Carolina. Yeah, I’ll do everything I can,” Mayfield said.
Even with Mayfield trying to power through, Kyle Trask has been preparing to start in case he is needed. Baker was able to participate in practice on Thursday but it came a day after Trask took first-team reps.
During the preseason, Trask showed flashes of potential, as the 2021 second-round pick completed 45-69 (65.2%) of his passes for 509 passing yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and an 83.2 passer rating. That comes just one year Trask completed 43-67 (64.2%) of his passes for 457 passing yards, one touchdown, two interceptions, and a 78.7 passer rating as a rookie in the preseason.
Due to the emergence of Mayfield, Trask saw little to no playing time all season, taking just four snaps. In Tampa Bay's week 12 game versus Indianapolis, however, Trask came in for an injured Mayfield after he lead the Buccaneers down to the Colts' four-yard line in the game's opening drive. While the drive would stall and end in a field goal, Trask threw a beautiful corner route to WR Chris Godwin, but was dropped by Godwin while falling out of bounds.
Mayfield is expected to start until stated otherwise, but things are far from certain. Trask getting more work than he has all season with the first-team is certainly a concerning omen, but there's nothing to officially panic about -- yet.