DETROIT — At this moment, there are 99 seconds remaining in Sunday's NFC divisional divisional game against the Lions. The Bucs had one timeout remaining and a touchdown and two-point conversion followed.
Baker Mayfield had the football in his hands and continued to pump belief into the hearts of his teammates.
“We absolutely thought we were going to slip, get a touchdown, and get a two-point conversion to extend it to overtime,” receiver Chris Godwin said, even though his team was 85 yards from the end zone. “We got a chance, and honestly that's all you can ask for. With all the highs and lows, we've been there. It's come down to it.”
However, Mayfield's pass to tight end Cade Otton was intercepted by linebacker Derrick Barnes, sealing a 31-23 win for the Lions, sending Ford Field into a frenzy and Detroit into next Sunday's conference title game against the 49ers in Santa Clara, California.
After that, everywhere you looked, you saw proud players from a superior Bucs team whose futures were uncertain.
Start with Mayfield, on his fourth team in less than two years and with a first-time starter, passing for 349 yards and three touchdowns. Although he and the Bucs have expressed interest in a long-term extension, he will become a free agent.
“I love this group. I've said it all year, and it's true,” Mayfield said. “It would mean a lot to me, bringing back a lot of pieces to put this back together and get to year two in the system and make big strides. I like that. Honestly, who knows how things will go? we will see. But I can't say enough about this organization and the opportunity it has given me this year. “I'm just grateful, so I hope it works out.”
Mike Evans stood with his back to his locker. He just caught eight passes for 147 yards and a touchdown but doesn't know if his next reception will be in a Tampa Bay uniform even though it's the only NFL team he knows.
“This franchise has been great for me and my family, and I love this place,” Evans said quietly. “So, we'll see.”
Linebacker Devin White quickly dressed and was filling a Styrofoam plate with chicken on his way to the team bus. He played sparingly in the game behind KJ Britt, who made 12 tackles, one for a loss.
Brett gave a pre-match speech at midfield, while there wasn't much to say about White's only tackle of the game.
White will be a free agent, and since he is not being used he will wear another uniform next season.
Linebacker Lavonte David, who led the team with 13 tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss, will also be a free agent. He addressed the team in the locker room afterwards but did not offer any clues about his future.
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Even coordinator Dave Canales, a first-time play-caller whose offense outscored the Lions 408-391, is a candidate for the Panthers' coaching job.
Not many gave the Bucs a chance to have a winning record this season, let alone capture a third straight NFC South title, upset the defending NFC champion Eagles and go down to the wire with the Lions. It was the score and just over 13 minutes away from going to the Super Bowl.
When asked what the takeaway from the 2023 Bucs would be, head coach Todd Bowles said: “A lot of toughness.”
“It's great that they agreed with each other, and we presented our own story for the most part. We didn't listen to the outside noise. We refused to be the worst team in football, because that's not what we were going to be. We still have a chance to get to the championship game.” “
It turned out to be one of the most insanely entertaining Bucs teams in years. They started out 3-1, lost six of seven games, rallied by winning six of the next seven, and found themselves in another scrappy game against the Lions.
They trailed 10-3 before Mayfield capped a 92-yard drive with a 2-yard TD pass to Otton before halftime. They were down 17-10 before Mayfield connected with Rashad White for a 12-yard TD pass late in the third quarter.
But the defense couldn't contain Lions quarterback Jared Goff, who passed for 287 yards and two touchdowns, and Jahmir Gibbs put Detroit ahead to stay with a 31-yard TD run with 13:13 remaining.
Aside from the potential emotional disconnect with Evans, the uncertainty regarding Mayfield is just as important. Bulls said he's earned the right to be the Bucs' starting quarterback moving forward.
“He definitely gets that,” Bowles said. “Obviously it's too early to talk about that. Business is business, but Baker has had a rough year. We love him. The guys love him. We'll see what his future holds.”
Although Mayfield followed Tom Brady, the Bulls said the quarterback entered a completely different situation with a new coordinator and a new system.
“We can't compare Baker to Tom,” Bowles said. “Tom is Mount Rushmore. Tom is out on his own. We started with a new person, a new system, and a new energy. Baker carved his own streak. I'm proud of him for that.”
Mayfield hated how the season ended. Faith has never left the Bucs sideline this year. He stood there with a wobbly head coach, an overlooked quarterback, a future Hall of Fame receiver, and a mercurial linebacker.
“It sucks, because I know the type of group we had all year,” Mayfield said. “… We weren't meant to be in this game no way. But we believed in each other, and we fought for it. Yeah, this is going to weigh on me for a while.”
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