Having already clinched a playoff spot in Week 16, the Buccaneers weren’t satisfied with just being in the dance. Instead, they stuck with the starters in Week 17’s home finale against the Falcons and it paid off in the form of a 44-27 win and the NFC’s No. 5 seed.
With their fourth straight victory, Tampa Bay finished the regular season with an 11-5 record for the first time since 2005. The team also earned a 4-2 record within the division, with those two losses to the Saints proving costly. The Bucs finished just one game behind the division winners, with the two head-to-head losses looming large. Nonetheless, Bruce Arians and his team are now just three wins away from playing for the Lombardi Trophy in their home stadium, and the playoff run starts Saturday night in Washington.
Before we move ahead to the postseason, let’s take one more look at the regular season’s final weekend and see how the Bucs’ NFC South rivals fared.
New Orleans Saints (12-4)
With a chance at the NFC’s first-round bye still on the line, the Saints did their part on Sunday against the Panthers. The NFC South champs took it to Carolina, winning 33-7 behind three Drew Brees passing touchdowns and five interceptions from the defense. Things were evened up at 7-7 after one quarter, but New Orleans scored 26 unanswered over the final three quarters to earn win No. 12 on the season. Malcolm Jenkins, P.J. Williams, Marshon Lattimore, Grant Haley and Ken Crawley all intercepted passes in the win, with the Panthers going through both Teddy Bridgewater and P.J. Walker before the game finished. And despite the fact that the Saints were without their entire running back room, they ran the ball well. Ty Montgomery, fresh off the practice squad, ran for 105 yards on 18 carries while Taysom Hill rushed seven times for 41 yards.
The Saints may have done their part to keep their hopes alive for the NFC’s No. 1 seed, but they didn’t get the help they needed. The Packers beat the Bears, meaning they earned the top seed. As the No. 2 seed, New Orleans will host Chicago on Sunday in the NFC Wild Card Round. And because the game is Sunday, Alvin Kamara could be available if he clears the proper COVID-19 protocols.
Carolina Panthers (5-11)
The Panthers’ 2020 season ended with a thud as they lost 33-7 at home to the Saints on Sunday afternoon. Despite a Rodney Smith one-yard touchdown run tying the game at 7-7 late in the first quarter, Carolina couldn’t hang around much longer. New Orleans finished the game on a 26-0 run and the Panthers ultimately benched Teddy Bridgewater for P.J. Walker, though neither quarterback could get anything going against the Saints’ defense. Bridgewater finished the day 13-of-23 for 176 yards and two interceptions while Walker threw for 95 yards and three interceptions on 5-of-14 passing. It was a disappointing end to Matt Rhule’s first season as Carolina’s head coach, but the team did manage to stay out of the division’s cellar.
The Panthers will now head into the offseason with some questions to answer. They need to rebuild their defense, but they also need to figure out whether Bridgewater is their answer at quarterback going forward. Rhule may also have to replace offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who is generating interest as a potential head coach elsewhere. Carolina will have the No. 8 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Atlanta Falcons (4-12)
The Falcons fell behind the Buccaneers early in Sunday’s game before getting back into it in the second half. However, they couldn’t complete their comeback, losing 44-27 to finish the 2020 season at 4-12. Matt Ryan completed 29-of-44 for 265 yards and two touchdowns while adding a touchdown on the ground. Atlanta got within 30-27 as late as the 8:19 mark in the fourth quarter, but 14 straight Tampa Bay points put the game away. Russell Gage was the Falcons’ leading receiver, catching nine passes for 91 yards and a touchdown. Calvin Ridley was largely held in check—unlike the Week 15 matchup between the two teams—and even had a costly fumble in the fourth quarter as the Falcons were trying to come back. The loss meant a season sweep at the hands of the Bucs and the team’s fifth straight loss to end the season.
This should be an interesting offseason in Atlanta, as a new era is set to begin. The team is already interviewing for its vacant head coach and general manager positions, and owner Arthur Blank has already said that there could be some significant changes to the roster heading into the 2021 season. Might we see Matt Ryan and Julio Jones in different uniforms next season? Spending the No. 4 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on a quarterback has to be enticing, and Ridley has emerged as a potential No. 1 receiver. Some big changes may be ahead for the Falcons.